New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet Explore Spare, Haunting Iranian Themes with Singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat

Today’s album is Placeless, by the Kronos Quartet with singers Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a frequently austere, often haunting Farsi-language song cycle exploring themes of displacement and alienation. It’s an inventive blend of Iranian, Indian and western classical sounds utilizing texts by Rumi, Hafez and more contemporary poets.

On the album’s first few tracks, the vocals are front and center, strings a little further back in the mix, rising up in the later numbers. The title track has a dramatic, melismatic crescendo bookended by tense, shivering ambience. My Ruthless Companion has spare, dancing, catchy looped phrases over a jaunty, strolling groove. With its achingly gorgeous resonance, My Tresses in the Wind is a ghazal, more or less, and the high point of the record.

Spiky, marching pizzicato and unsettled, hazy washes of sound alternate in I Was Dead, up to a cold, mysterious ending. Cellist Sunny Yang and violist Hank Dutt’s spare, plaintive lines rise and dip amid violinists David Harrington and John Sherba’s airy textures in the woundedly anthemic, Russian-tinged ballad Endless Embrace.

Misled Fate is a completely unexpected, steady, minimal theme with echoes of both Appalachian folk and new wave music. The Sun Rises has spare, ambient strings behind the two singers’ starkly brooding conversation, vocals panned left and right in the mix, their voices finally handing off to the quartet’s similarly plaintive, slightly baroque harmonies at the end.

Likewise, Vanishing Lines, a lush, striking waltz, comes across as a mix of elegantly medieval European and moody Iranian sounds. The Might of Love has a dancing pulse underneath one of the album’s sultriest vocals. The singers and strings return to uneasy, close-harmonied atmospherics in Far Away Glance and raise the unsettled intensity in the crescendos of Leyli’s Nightingale.

The ensemble alternate between occasional emphatic chords, shifting washes of sound and unexpected pauses in The Color of Moonlight. Angst-fueled, acidic swirls from the strings contrast with the often tenderly impassioned, anthemic vocals of Lover Go Mad. They close the album with Eternal Meadow, an allusively majestic, modal melody awash in disquieting echo effects. The Kronos Quartet have put out an awful lot of good albums, going back almost fifty years; this is one of the best.

Welcome Sonic Improvements For Another Reliably Good Slate of Shows at Prospect Park Bandshell

The best news about this year’s free concert series at the bandshell in Prospect Park is that the sound is vastly improved. Last year’s booking was as good as the sound mix was awful: bass and drums, mostly. An admittedly small sample – two shows last month – revealed that somebody actually seems to care about giving the bands onstage at least baseline-level (pun intended) respect this summer.

The first of those shows opened with Combo Chimbita playing a typically ferocious scamperingly psychedelic set, followed by a lavishly augmented 22-piece version of second-wave Afrobeat pioneers Antibalas. Of all the bands here this year who could have really suffered from a bad mix, Combo Chimbita top the list because of how much of a swirling vortex of sound they can create. This time, when they finally got to that point – more than a half hour into their set – the dubwise effect was obviously intentional.

Otherwise, the clarity of Niño Lento’s vineyard lattice of guitar, Prince of Queens’ hypnotically pulsing bass and Carolina Oliveros’ powerful, emphatic vocals over Dilemastronauta’s flurry of drumbeats was as sparkling as anyone could have wanted. Toward the end of the set, Oliveros finally unleashed her inner metal animal, a truly fearsome moment. Although it wasn’t as feral to witness as the band’s most recent Barbes show, it was pretty close. The bookers here have never hesitated to draw on the vast talent base who make Brooklyn’s best fulltime music venue their home, so it was inspiring to see a whole park full of people beyond the band’s usual Colombian fanbase entranced by the show.

With all the extra firepower, Antibalas hardly limited themselves to two-chord, Fela-inspired minor-key jams. There were a handful of those, perfectly executed, bass and guitars running the same catchy riffs over and over again without a split second’s deviation while the brass punched in and out. Special guests on vocals and horns, plus a trio of women dancers, took turns taking the spotlight with solos that were sometimes resonant and floaty, or ablaze with jazz phrasing. Dynamics rose and fell with lavish abandon, often down from the full orchestra to just the rhythm section and a single soloist, then suddenly up again with a mighty sweep.

A second show last month was just as entertaining and stylistically diverse. The Kronos Quartet opened with a defiantly political set, beginning with a new arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ take of the Star Spangled Banner that had the group keening, and leaping, and shrieking, a remarkable acoustic facsimile of guitar feedback and sonic protest iconography. From a stark, plaintive version of Strange Fruit, through mutedly bluesy takes of Summertime and House of the Rising Sun, to the spare anguish of John Coltrane’s elegaic Alabama, they kept the intensity simmering. The world premiere of Dan Becker’s No More followed an eerily circling path; then children’s artist Dan Zanes brought up his acoustic guitar and led the crew through a singalong of We Shall Overcome.

The second half of the program featured the string quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – joined by Trio Da Kali, playing songs from their new collaboration, Ladilikan. It was fascinating to hear the strings playing loping, sometimes undulating Saharan riffs while Fode Lassan Diabate’s balafon rippled and pinged and Mamadou Kouyate played incisive, tricky syncopation on his bass ngoni, often adding an otherworldly, gnawa-like groove. Meanwhile, singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate delivered insistent, sometimes anguished lyrics addressing struggle against oppression and the omnipresent need for human rights for all people, regardless of gender, in her part of the world. The language, considering the venue, may have seemed exotic to most of the crowd, but the message was as resonant here as it would have been on her home turf in Mali.

The next free show at Prospect Park Bandshell is this Thursday, Aug 9 with noirish blue-eyed soul singer Fiona Silver and popular blues guitarslinger Gary Clark Jr. And Combo Chimbita are playing another free show, in the courtyard at Union Pool on Aug 11 at around 4 PM.

A Revealing, Lavishly Illustrated New Book and a Midtown Release Show by Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson is the world’s best-loved avant garde artist. Yet as much as her forty-plus year career has encompassed music, art, sculpture, film, video, literature and cutting edge technology, ultimately her work boils down to narratives. Ask anyone what they love about Anderson, and inevitably the first thing they’ll mention is her storytelling. And it’s that keen sense of purpose, that inimitable, dry sense of humor, and that unpretentious, matter-of-fact midwestern sensibility that draws an audience in, that succeed in getting us to think outside the box along with her.

You wouldn’t expect a coffee-table book to be much of a revelation, but that’s exactly what Anderson’s new book All the Things I Lost in the Flood is. A lavishly illustrated, self-curated career retrospective, it’s a rare opportunity to explore the nuts and bolts of how Anderson conceives and then brings a work to life. And it’s hardly self-congratulatory, While out of necessity, she devotes a large proportion of the book to her best-known works – Homeland, United States in its many parts, and Habeas Corpus – she spends just as much time on early projects, some of which weren’t fully realized, others which ran into roadblocks. Either way, it’s a feast of ideas for any artist in any discipline.

Anderson’s impetus for the book – and her new album, Landfall, with the Kronos Quartet – was Hurricane Sandy. In salvaging what was left of her basement full of instruments and memorabilia after the storm, she was thrown into revisitation mode. Obviously, if there’s any living artist who deserves a retrospective at, say, the Met or MOMA, it’s Anderson; in the meantime, this will suffice – and you can take it home with you. Anderson is celebrating the release of the book – just out from Skira Rizzoli – on Feb 15 at 8 PM with a performance including many special guests at the Town Hall. Presumably there will an opportunity to get books signed afterward.

Although Anderson’s work is the antithesis of TMI, she’s surprisingly revealing. As a child, she almost drowned her twin younger brothers in a frozen pond whose ice gave way – and then miraculously saved them. Much as she loves “lossy” media – where the limits of technology interfere with the delivery of an image or an idea – she’s always been fascinated by the state of the art. She was using a lo-fi, landline-based prototype for Skype in 1979…and much as she initially resisted virtual reality and computer language, she has recently delved into both, if with a little prodding from fans who were experts in those fields.

What might be most astonishing here is that Anderson had already pretty much concretized her subtly provocative vision by the early 1970s. A violin filled with water; talking statues with loaded messages (who may well be alter egos); convicted murderers beamed into installations, and her interactive piece featuring a survivor of Guantanamo torture hell during the Bush years, are all chronicled here.

The visuals are just as fascinating. The black-and-white photos from 1972 forward say a lot. The young Anderson, it turns out was just as calmly determined as the famous one Americans know much better. There are also all sorts of sketches, diagrams, stage directions and plenty of tour photos. The latter, many of them outlandishly large onstage, don’t translate to the format of the book as well, but the rest are a literal how-to guide for inspired multimedia artists.

And she’s hilarious. Both the anecdotes and the offhand sociological commentary are choice. Having memorized a Japanese translation of one of her spoken-word pieces, she discovers during a Japanese tour that the guy who gave her the cassette to memorize had a bad stutter – which she dutifully copied. Although she’s hardly convinced that her fulfillment of an early 70s grant – playing solo violin, unamplified on the Upper East Side of Manhattan – was any kind of success, there’s a charming photo of some chivalrous gentleman passing the hat for her. Many of the jokes are too good, and still valid after many years, to give away here.

And relevance has always been front and center in her work – from the coy, sardonic questions of her early 70s work, to her hit single O Superman – a cynical look at Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt at a rescue during the Iranian hostage crisis – to the sinister implications of global warming in Landfall.

Much as this is a very funny book, a sobering undercurrent lingers. It’s one thing to lose the record stores that used to sell Anderson’s albums; it’s another to lose the bookstores she had in every city, that she relished visiting between gigs while on tour. She quotes Karl Rove, referencing how fake news has been part of the totalitarian agenda long before the current Presidential administration. And much as she has come to employ new technology, she’s dismayed by social media’s atomizing and alienating effects. Anderson herself is not on Facebook.

Playful, Entertaining Solo Cello Improvisation and an Album Release Show in Queens by Daniel Levin

There are plenty of cellists who can jam, but Daniel Levin is as fearless and sometimes devastatingly intense as an improviser can get. He has an irresistibly fun new  album of solo improvisation, Living, streaming at Bandcamp and an album release show coming up this Saturday night, Oct 28 on a killer twinbill with guitarmeister Brandon Seabrook‘s pummeling two-drum Die Trommel Fatale at Holo, 1090 Wyckoff Ave. in Ridgewood. The show starts at 8, the club’s web page is dead and nobody is saying publicly who’s playing when, but it doesn’t really matter. Seabrook and Levin cap it off with what could be a seriously volcanic duo set. Cover is $10; take the L to Halsey St.

The album’ first track, Assemblage, is a lot of fun.  Shivers, pops, a monkey barking, a motorcycle revving, a tree being felled with a saw and a wolf whistle or two finally lead to steps to a door.

Generator is full of squiggles, furtive squirreliness. a few microtonal variations that bounce off a low pedal note and a droll interlude that could be breakfast in a coffee shop.

Baksy-buku goes from whispers to screams, then back, with an animated one-sided conversation. Levin can mimic pretty much everything on his four strings without any electronic effects.

The Dragon, an eleven-minute, amusingly detailed epic, focuses on what could be the prep work for fire-breathing devastation. These tracks are all close-miked with plenty of reverb, so every flick of the bow or tap of the fingers on the body of the cello is picked up. Levin uses this trope everywhere, especially in Symbiotic, which rises toward the kind of frenetic sawing he’s capable of generating before the piece fades to spacious warps and blips.

The album winds up with the whispery, rustling Mountain of Butterflies. Levin’s relentless dedication to evincing unexpected sounds out of his axe ought to be heard beyond the audience of cellists and bass players trying to figure out how he does it. And it makes a good soundtrack for a haunted house.

Powerful, Provocative and Playful Performances at the Opening of the New St. Ann’s Warehouse

If you could perform a Yoko Ono world premiere with the Kronos Quartet and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity? That’s what the audience at the grand opening of the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo did Saturday night…literally. It was a playful Pauline Oliveros-style improv: everybody got to be rain, and snow, and a momentary thunderstorm. It wasn’t on the bill: from the looks of it, those of us who knew about it beforehand kept that information to ourselves.

The rest of the program embraced the cutting-edge, the profound and the warmly familliar. Choir leader Dianne Berkun-Menaker guided a beefed-up take of Americana band the Wailin’ Jennys‘ One Voice, plus an easygoing audience singalong of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House. Accompanied by vibraphonist David Cossin, the chorus opened the show with Aleksandra Vrebalov‘s Bubbles, a deliciously entertaining suite juxtaposing droll water noises with achingly lush, neoromantic atmospherics. The composer smartly chose to end on a humorous note: even the most serious-minded performer would have had a hard time getting through this one without collapsing in laughter. Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps, reprised from the chorus’ earlier performance this month at National Sawdust, maintained the kinetic pulse with its dynamic shifts, quirky accents and challenging polyrhythms, all seamlessly performed.

The most cutting-edge moment of the program was when the groups were joined by pioneering Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel, who reinvent Bulgaian and Macedonian folk themes, sometimes cutting largescale choral works to their stark roots, sometimes creating 21st century arrangements of ancient folk tunes. The chorus seemed turbocharged for this one, poised to provide waves of dark earthtone color, elegantly slow glissandos and plainchant-like precision behind the microtonally-spiced, eerie close harmonies of Willa Roberts, Shelley Thomas and Sarah Small. The piece itself, titled Around the Forest, A Youth Roams; The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, was composed by Small – whose repertoire extends to art-song, largescale ensemble works and tableaux vivants – in collaboration with Brooklyn Balkan icon and theatrical composer Rima Fand.

The most relevant pieces on the bill were both world premieres, Sahba Aminikia‘s Sound, Only Sound Remains, and Mary Kouyoumdjian‘s Become Who I Am. The former gave the quartet a stern and austerely waltzing arrangement, delivered with precision against multitracks of women singers in Iran along with a digitized copy of a hundred-year-old 78 RPM folk recording. In Iran, it’s illegal for a woman to sing unaccompanied by men; this expression of global solidarity spoke volumes. Likewise, the latter of the premieres incorporated a litany of increasingly cutting, sardonic spoken-word snippets from members of the chorus into its carefully crescendoing, plaintive sweep, contemplating ongoing challenges facing women inside and outside of music. Bottom line: the glass ceiling might have a few cracks, but it’s still there. And if you thought the pressure to conform – especially for girls – was bad when you were a kid, it’s brutal now.

About the new space: it’s gorgeous. Tiered seating offers clear sightlines, and the sonics are pristine. While you can hear a pin drop when it’s quiet, it’s not a completely dry space like Avery Fisher Hall. And the hot chocolate at the food stand out front was getting the thumbs-up from the chocoholics in the crowd.

A Shattering Roulette Performance of Mary Kouyoumdjian Works Commemorating the Genocide in Armenia

Last night’s concert at Roulette included what were arguably the most harrowing moments onstage at any New York performance since Sung Jin Hong premiered his rumbling, macabre real-time depiction of the Hiroshima nuclear bombing at a Chelsea show with the One World Symphony a couple of years ago. This one commemorated the centenary of an even more lethal series of events, the holocaust in Armenia, via four works by the riveting, individualistic composer Mary Kouyoumdjian.

For those with gaps in their history, no nation in the past hundred fifty years was depopulated by mass murder to the extent that Armenia was, dating from the 1890s through the Ottomans’ mass extermination campaign of 1915-22 .The exact death toll is not known: if the pogroms of 1894-96 and subsequent mass killings are included, the number is upwards of two milllion men, women and children murdered, confirmed by the fact that barely fifteen percent of the pre-genocide population remained afterward. And if genocide wasn’t bad enough, who then formally annexed Armenia? The Soviet Union.

Kouyoumdjian’s music is rich with history, notably The Bombs of Beirut, her first Kronos Quartet commission, an examination of the effects of the civil war in Lebanon in the early 80s. That ensemble premiered an even more intense new string quartet, while adventurous chamber ensemble Hotel Elefant performed an equally gripping trio of works. The music was propulsively and often insistently rhythmic, and texturally rich, with some group members doubling on multiple instruments including accordion, vibraphone and electric piano. Kouyoumdjian worked the entirety of the sonic spectrum, from murky lows to whispery highs, often balancing them for a dramatic, cinematic effect.

A quintet including pianist David Friend, flutist Domenica Fossati, violinist Andie Springer, clarinetist Isabel Kim and cellist Rose Bellini played Dzov Erky Koonyov (Sea of Two Colors), a homage to legendary singer/composer/musicologist Komitas, who was sort of the Alan Lomax of early 20th century Armenia. An acidic, biting diptych blending elements of spectral, microtonal and circular indie classical idioms, it challenged Friend with its long series of pointillistic anvil motives, which he finally and remarkably gracefully handed off to Springer as the rest of the group provided a lush but stark interweave. Komitas spent the last two decades of his life institutionalized, broken by the horrific torture he’d suffered, referenced by Koyoumdjian’s endlessly cycling, aching phrases and distant Middle Eastern allusions.

Baritone Jeffrey Gavett gave an understatedly poignant tone to Royce Vavrek’s lyrics throughout Everlastingness, a trio piece, over the brooding backdrop of Friend’s piano and Gillian Gallagher’s viola. This was a portrait of doomed surrealist artist Arshile Gorky, who survived the holocaust and escaped to America after losing his mother to starvation. The first half of the concert peaked with a full thirteen-piece ensemble, heavy on percussion, playing the eleven-part suite This Should Feel Like Home. Inspired by the composer’s first trip to the land of her ancestors a couple of years ago, it referenced the seizure of national landmarks, forced displacement, longing for home and savagery that rose to a long, horrified, searing crescendo that left Josh Perry’s huge bass drum to roar and resonate and finally fade down. While the previous piece on the bill offered elegant variations on an austere, chromatically-charged piano melody, this was replete with vividly Middle Eastern riffs and cadenzas against constantly shifting atmospherics: as an evocation of mass agony, it was almost unendurable.

The Kronos Quartet were given a more plaintive work, Silent Cranes, sort of a synthesis of the meticulous insistence of the first part of the program and the raw angst that followed. To make things more complicated, they were challenged to keep time with with a similarly vivid series of projections of often grisly archival images as well as snippets of haunting old recordings, including one of Komitas himself and testimony from survivors. It’s a severely beautiful, dynamically vibrant if unceasingly pained and mournful portait of an injustice that’s far too often overlooked, and ended on an almost mystical note to accompany historian/investigative journalist David Barsamian’s recorded commentary which essentially echoed that if we forget events like these, those things might well happen to us.

On one hand, what Kouyoumdjian has done with this is important historical work, and puts the music in an appropriatingly horrifying context – which the stunned audience eventually rewarded with a standing ovation. On the other hand, it would be also be rewarding to hear that string quartet by itself: it’s certainly strong enough to stand on its own. The best concert of 2015 so far? By far, the most intense.

A Methodically Riveting Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet Collaboration at BAM

If you’d assumed that Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet had collaborated before now, you’re not the only one. Anderson recently joked that she’d assumed as much. But the iconic minimalist violinist/composer/wit and the long-running ensemble actually haven’t worked together until now. They’re in the midst of a run through Sept 27 at BAM’s Harvey Theatre, whose barewall space, believe it or not, is very sonically welcoming to their performance of their new work, Landfall, a somberly matter-of-fact suite of sorts. While Anderson wrapped up writing it during the hurricane here a couple of years ago, its scope is considerably wider, touching on such weighty questions as one’s legacy as an artist, the failures of memory and the quirks of language that Anderson has explored throughout her career, among other things.

And much as Anderson may be best known for her acerbic sense of humor and stiletto punchlines, her work since day one has always had a sober, socially aware undercurrent. That rose to the surface with her Iraq war parable, Homeland and has remained front and center ever since, most notably throughout her searing, enveloping 2011 opus The Real New York. This new project with Kronos embodies many of these artists’ familiar tropes: hypnotic electroacoustic textures; crafty improvisation; tongue-in-cheek multimedia and sardonic narrative bits. And it’s as dark as you would imagine.

At Wednesday’s performance, the suite began with a lithely apprehensive theme over a slowly vamping backdrop. Throughout the show, Anderson alternted between her electric violin, a small keyboard on which she played moody neoromantic riffs, and a series of laptop triggers. Midway through the set, violinist John Sherba stood up and took a percussive solo, in the process activating a rapidfire projection of the words to one of the night’s most harrowing comments, one that Anderson perhaps preferred not to articulate herself.

Shortly afterward, Sherba and violinist David Harrington anchored one of the night’s several short segments in unison with the whisperiest possible staccato pedal note, a task that easily could have been assigned to one of Anderson’s machines, but which took the mystery to another level considering how much nuanced intensity the two players put into it. Cellist Sunny Yang intertwined muscular, slinky pizzicato phrases with violist Hank Dutt a little later on against Anderson’s signature, misty, brooding atmospherics. And the group built a couple of austere, horizontal vistas to unexpectedly angst-fueled crescendos, Anderson working the dynamics for all it was worth. This evening appeared to be sold out, but as of today, believe it or not, there are still a few seats left.

An Astonishingly Eclectic, Global Album and an Auspicious Laurie Anderson Collaboration at BAM from the Kronos Quartet

The original indie classical ensemble, the Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – are teaming up with Laurie Anderson for what promises to be one of the year’s best, and potentially one of the decade’s most auspicious runs at BAM next week. They’lll be performing their collaboration, Landfall, which explores Anderson’s experiences during Hurricane Sandy here in New York a couple of years ago. The concerts run from Sept 23 to Sept 27 at 7:30 PM. $20 balcony seats are still available as of today. You’ve been given the heads-up – this could be major.

The Kronos Quartet’s latest album, A Thousand Thoughts – streaming at Spotify – is also pretty major. It’s basically a survey of string music from around the globe, accent on intense and substantial. It’s also an unusually successful take on a format that’s often overrated and underwhelming: pairing a famous group with a bunch of equally famous special guests. But the Quartet has always been a mutable unit, as these fifteen tracks – recorded across the years, with every Kronos Quartet lineup – prove over and over again. They literally can play anything, yet always manage to put their own individualistic, out-of-the-box stamp on it. Celtic traditional music reinvented as ambient soundscape? Check. The Blind Willie Johnson delta blues tune Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground remade as Vietnamese art-song, with eerily quavering dan bao from Van-Anh Vanessa Vo? Doublecheck.

Maybe what’s most enjoyable here is that virtually all of these performance are acoustic. To be completely fair, when the Kronos Quartet have employed electronics, those effects aren’t usually gratuitous: the group tends to use them for extra atmospheric bulk and heft when a piece calls for it. But these performances are intimate, with an immediacy and vivid chemistry among the ensemble and with the guests. The Quartet teams up with Syrian star Omar Souleyman for a Bollywood-ish jam with biting accents and swirling microtones over a steady, hypnotic beat. Vo returns to join her countryman Kim Sinh for another alternately spiky and swooping Vietnamese number. A suspensefully crescendoing, rather epic Ethiopian theme by Ethiopiques sax legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya is one of the album’s highlights.

A far more stark, haunting highlight is Sim Sholom, by klezmer legend Alter Yechiel Karniol. A long, dynamically rich, slowly unwinding take of a Turkish classical theme by early 20th century composer Tanburi Cemil Bey might be the best track of them all. Or it could be the spare, haunting Greek gangster blues tune Smyrneiko Minore. Or for that matter, a rare. achingly beautiful excerpt from Astor Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations featuring the great bandoneonist/composer himself.

There’s also a shapeshiftingly lush Terry Riley piece featuring the vocals of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares; a Homayun Sakhi Afghani rubab tune that straddles the line between Middle Eastern and Indian music; a scampering collaboration with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man on a rousing traditional song; and a little gentle Bollywood and Irish folk at the end. It’s an apt summation of this group’s hall of fame career, one that simply refuses to stop.

Delicate, Otherworldly Exotica from Vietnamese Folk Innovator Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

It took two and a half years, but an album finally came over the transom here that’s so strange and otherworldly and surrealistically captivating that it qualifies as exotic. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo‘s new release Three Mountain Pass mixes and sometimes mashes up traditional Vietnamese sounds along with an opera piece featuring the Kronos Quartet, plus a reinvention of an iconic, macabre classic. Her main instruments are the dan tranh – which has the ringing, sitar-like, bent-note resonance of the Indian sarangi, but with fewer overtones – and the dan bau, which can swoop and dive like an acoustic version of a theremin, or carry long resonant lines like a violin.

She opens the album with a solo dan tranh diptych, slowly unfolding in the Asian pentatonic scale and then working its way into an insistent raga-like interlude. Erik Satie’s creepily immortal Gnossienne No. 3 gets an expansive interpretation, the lingeringly eerie melody grounded by ghostly chords played on a bass dan tranh. On the minimalistic title track, Vo sings her own arrangement of  an 18th century Vietnamese poem with a brittle, impassioned expressiveness over hypnotic hang (the Swiss steel drum) and percussion. Vo joins with the Kronos Quartet on Green River Delta, a folk-inspired opera piece written by Luu Thuy Truong, rising to a dancing pastoral sway that blends hypnotically with the spiky dan tranh melody underneath.

She concludes the album with a trio of originals. Mourning, an elegy for those maimed and killed during the Vietnam War, mixes dizzyingly sepulchral layers of echoing, sirening, multitracked dan bau. The Legend illustrates a Vietnamese creation myth, its spacious atmospherics interchanging with an intricate web of dan tranh, percussion and keyboards. Vo plays t’rung, the South Vietnamese bamboo xylophone, accompanied by boomy Japanese taiko drums on the final cut, Go Hunting, a mysterious but lively jungle theme. All of this has a strangely soothing effect: it isn’t likely that there’s been another album that remotely resembles this one released (in this case, by Innova) in the US this year.

A Second Night with the Kronos Quartet

[repost from the other blog – if you visit here frequently, you’ll notice how that place comes in handy to keep the front page fresh here at the end of the month when all possible energy is being summoned to pull together a new NYC live music calendar...]

If you could see the Kronos Quartet two nights in a row – for free – wouldn’t you? That’s part of the premise of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. It was no surprise that the seats filled up early last night for an exhilarating string-driven cross-continental journey that began in Syria and ended in Greece, with flights to Palestine and India in between.

The group opened with a deliciously intense, hauntingly pulsing number by Syrian star Omar Souleyman titled I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You, a particularly apt choice considering the ongoing revolutionary struggles there. Violinist John Sherba’s nonchalantly sizzling swoops and dives soared against the beat of violist Hank Dutt, who was playing goblet drum, amped up in the mix for a ba-BOOM swing that put to shame any drum machine ever devised. They followed with a gorgeously ambered, austere old Yachiel Karniol cantorial tone poem of sorts, Sim Shalom (Let There Be Peace), a feature for the group’s new cellist Sunny Yang to air out the whispery, occasionally wailling ghosts in her instrument.

An electrocoustic take on Palestinian group Ramallah Underground‘s gritty, metaphorically charged Tashweesh (Distortion) was next, the ensemble adhering tightly to a backing track for a hypnotic, menacingly Lynchian ambience. Avant garde Vietnamese-American zither player Van-Anh Vo then joined the ensemble on the traditional, spiky dan tranh and vocals (and later played keening, sinister glissandos on a loudly amplified dan bao) for a lush pastorale possibly titled Green Delta. Violinist David Harrington led them through Vo’s Christmas Storm to a wild chamber-metal crescendo out; Dutt switched to a screechy wood flute for a third Vo work, before returning to his usual axe as the piece morphed into a lithe dance. After a long, rapt Ljova arrangement of the anxiously dreamy alap section of a Ram Narayan raga, Harrington switching to the resonant sarangi, the ensemble brought up Magda Giannikou, frontwoman of the disarmingly charming French lounge-pop group Banda Magda, to play a new, custom-made lanterna with its deep, rippling, pinging tones. The world premiere of her new work Strope in Antistrophe mingled biting yet playful cadenzas and tricky back-and-forth polyrhythms within a warmly tuneful, enveloping atmosphere.

Aptly named Irish chamber-folk quartet the Gloaming opened the evening with a series of resonantly nocturnal arrangements of ancient songs as well as a couple of new ones that sounded like them, violinist Martin Hayes’ otherworldly, deceptively simple washes of melody rising over Dennis Cahill’s casually meticulous guitar, along with piano and vocals. What’s the likelihood of seeing something this esoteric, and this much fun? In the next couple of weeks, pretty much every day.