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The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

Dynamic, Kaleidoscopic Massed Improvisational Sprawl from Ingrid Laubrock

As a saxophonist, Ingrid Laubrock has formidable chops, borderless ambitions and an often devious sense of humor. While she’s been increasingly sought after for prestige big band gigs in the last couple of years, her own compositions up til now have been mostly for small groups, heavy on the improvisation. This blog characterized her 2016 album Ubatuba as “free jazz noir.” Her latest release, Contemporary Chaos Practices – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious project to date: two lushly invigorating, Braxton-esque pieces for orchestra and soloists. Those looking for bouncy hooks and swing won’t find it here, but as far as grey-sky massed improvisation, vivid unease and wry humor are concerned, this album is hard to beat.

One big innovation here is that Laubrock employs two conductors. Eric Wubbels conducts the score, while the conduction of Taylor Ho Bynum guides the improvisational aspects of the performance. A big whoosh from the 42-piece orchestra kicks off guitarist Mary Halvorson’s insistent pointillisms as the first segment of the epic four-part title piece gets underway, quickly echoed by the full ensemble: the hammering effect is very Louis Andriessen. Echoey, after-the-battle desolation alternates with massive upward swells; hushed flickers interchange with assertive, massed staccato. From there, a big, portentous heroic theme gets devoured by a flitting swarm of instruments: the effect as funny as it is disconcerting.

The first two movements segue into each other; the third begins with Messiaenic birdsong-like figures, then Jacob Garchik’s trombone kicks off a deliciously off-center, frantic chase scene from the whole ensemble. Led by dissociative figures from the strings, the calm afterward foreshadows the eerie resonance of the coda, awash in enigmatic low brass while Kris Davis’ electric piano flickers and flutters like the celeste in a Bernard Herrmann horror film score.

The album’s second piece, Vogelfrei, begins lush and still, Davis’ muted, ghostly piano signaling a droll exchange between strings and low brass. The intricacy of the interplay, right down to the tongue-in-cheek whistling of the strings amid a slowly emerging, lustrous melody, may be more thoroughly composed than it seems. Comedic moments – Halvorson’s guitar detective hitting a brick wall and then collapsing, and a yes-we-can/no-you-can’t smackdown – liven an otherwise persistent disquiet. A sepulchral choir of voices enters as the instruments build to a crowded skatepark tableau, which disappears only to pop up again.

Davis’ brooding neoromantic figures echo over a distant whirl and bustle, followed by a couple of slow but vigorous upward crescendos. Moments of bittersweet melody fall away one after the other, fading down and out with a long shiver from the strings a la Julia Wolfe.

Laubrock’s New York home these days is the Jazz Gallery, although she also likes to explore the fringes, both literally and figuratively. Her next gig is on Jan 31 at Holo in Ridgewood with a like-minded cast of improvisers: guitarist Ava Mendoza, microtonal violinist Sarah Bernstein, bassists Adam Lane and Brandon Lopez, and drummer Vijay Anderson. It’s not clear who’s playing when or with whom, but the lineup is worth coming out for whatever the case might be. Showtime is 7 PM; cover is $15.

Rage Against the Machine in the Former Belly of the Beast

In their sold-out concert at the Park Avenue  Armory Wednesday night, cutting-edge 24-member choral ensemble the Crossing delivered a breathtakingly virtuosic rebuke to anyone who might think that rage is not all the rage these days. The Armory dates back to the 19th century and is decorated throughout with high quality Civil War memorabilia. According to heraldic engravings in all sorts of precious metals, sixty-five of New York’s entitled classes died fighting to keep the Union together. It’s hardly a stretch to consider that their patriotism may have reflected less of an endorsement of civil liberties for all Americans, black and white, than the desire to keep sources of raw materials in the south safe in the grip of northern banksters.

Conductor Donald Nally’s choice to stage the group’s performance there was as daring as it was obvious. Each room utilized for the concert’s two sets is rich with natural reverb. in a proud tradition that goes back long before Laurie Anderson‘s legendary performances at the Armory, this was yet another reclamation of the space in the name of something other than killing.

Eight of the pieces on the program were New York premieres. The trio of cellists Thomas Mesa, Arlen Hlusko and Sujin Lee opened with the subtly shifting, hypnotically circling riffs of David Lang’s Depart as the crowd filed in. The singers then took their places one by one and treated the audience to a night of daunting counterpoint, playfully challenging extended technique, kaleidoscopic interplay and glistering, often achingly enveloping polyphony.

Central to the program were two breathtaking pieces by Gabriel Jackson. Our Flags Are Wafting in Hope and Grief, with its cleverly expanding cell-like phrases and dramatic cadenzas, brought to life Latvian writer Doris Koreva’s poem addressing a crucial, pivotal historical moment from which there can be no return. There’s cruel ambiguity in its flag imagery; the ensemble’s  emphatic intensity weighed in on the side of the perils of nationalism rather than potential triumphs.

The similarly circling first segment of Jackson’s Rigwreck could have been dispensed with, but the diptych’s second part was as gripping as it is relevant, connecting the dots from the question of eternal vigilance to its absence in both the BP Gulf oil spill catastrophe, and also our own relationships. The pinpoint precision of the group’s gusts underscored the grim cautionary tale in Pierre Joris’ text, a fervent wakeup call about the corporate interests and money culture that pollute individual lives as toxically as the Gulf of Mexico and its coastline were in 2010.

Kile Smith’s Conversation on the Mountain – from his suite Where Flames a Word – gave the choir a wide-open field for all sorts of deft, subtly baroque-inflected call-and-response that twinkled and sometimes burst from every corner of the stage. A brief premiere, by Louis Andriessen rose to anguished close harmonies. By contrast, the group got to let off some steam with Ted Hearne’s Animals, voicing an entire Nile riverbank bestiary with unleashed abandon and an undercurrent of Orwellian cynicism.

The choice of opening the second half of the concert with the knifes-edge close harmonies of Suzanne Giraud’s Johannisbaum instantly set the tone for the unease of the rest of the program, the cellists joined by a trio of soprano Abigail Chapman, mezzo-soprano Elisa Sutherland and a masterfully precise blonde woman whose image hasn’t yet made it to Google. Unfair as it is to single out a singer from a performance where selfless teamwork is so crucial, Sutherland’s soul-infused expressiveness and unselfconscious joie de vivre explain why she was front and center throughout much of the show.

There was also hypnotic, atmospheric rapture in Sebastian Currier’s Sanctus, from his Night Mass, and a final, wistfully precarious contemplation of our ongoing existence by Lang. Needless to say, it was a sobering idea to take home.

The Crossing’s next concert, on Sept 29 at 8 PM features indie classical chamber group International Contemporary Ensemble, with works by Hearne, Lang and Caroline Shaw at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theatre. Tix are $30; a $10 shuttle bus leaves from behind Port Authority about an hour and a half before the show. It’s about a 45-minute ride from Manhattan. 

Yet Another Great Noir Album and a Rare NYC Show from Punk Jazz Legends Iconoclast

New York punk jazz group Iconoclast’s latest album Naked Rapture is a masterpiece of noir, a sound they’ve been mining since the 80s. Much of it is a cleverly assembled theme and variations based on a brooding, utterly abandoned Julie Joslyn alto sax theme, interspersed among short pieces as diverse as a stripped-down reimagining of Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia, a jazzed-out version of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude (the only two covers among 25 tracks) and a deliciously acerbic sendup of takadimi drum language. Saxophonist/violinist Joslyn‘s evocation of the quintessential solitary busker, back up against a midtown brickwall sometime after midnight, serenading herself with a rapt, bittersweet beauty (heavier on the bitter than the sweet) is picture-perfect, unselfconsciously plaintive and worth the price of admission alone. She and her conspirator, drummer/pianist Leo Ciesa are playing a rare New York show this Friday, Oct 17 at 7 PM at Michiko Studios, 149 W 46th St.

Joslyn, for the most part, maintains a stiletto clarity on the sax, occasionally diverging to a haphazard wail, or creepily cold and techy when she hits her pedalboard. She plays violin less here than on other Iconoclast albums, using the instrument more for atmospherics or assaultiveness than for melody. Ciesa is a similarly nuanced player, even though he may be best known for his ability to summon the thunder (he also plays in long-running art/noise band Dr. Nerve). In addition, he provides alternately moody, resonant, Satie-esque or rippling, hammering Louis Andriessesn-ish piano and keyboard loops here and there.

The album is best appreciated as a suite, a single, raindrenched, wee-hours urban mood piece rather than a series of discrete tracks. Dancing, furtively stalking motives hand off to more austere, poignant passages. Ciesa leaps and bounds through the more jaunty parts, but he’s always there with a muted roll of the toms or a skull-cracking thud to signal a return to the mystery. There are also occasional moments of humor, a death-obsessed, Burroughsian jazz-poetry piece, and a hint of gamelanesque mayhem. It’s a Sam Fuller film (or Manfred Kirchheimer doc) for the ears. Now where can you hear this sonic treat? Right now, live, all the more reason to check out the show if dark cinematic sounds are your thing. There’s also plenty of audio and video documentation of the band’s career at their webpage.

Ciesa also has a solo drum album out that on face value might only be of interest to his fellow drummers – which it assuredly is, but is also a must-own for anyone who records music. Can’t afford to hire Ciesa for a record date? No problem. There are so many good, swinging beats here, from the simple and relatively four-on-the-floor to more complex and thought-provoking, perfectly suitable for innumerable projects across many genres.

Bang on a Can Marathon 2014: A Short Version (Sort Of)

[republished from New York Music Daily’s “serious music” annex Lucid Culture]

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. The 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia WolfeDavid Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.

The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.

Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.

Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that  rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.

Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices,  incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.

Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.

Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius EastmanJace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.

These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.

After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?

Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.