New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: luisa muhr

Twin Peaks Chorales and a Mysterious Ritual From Mary Prescott at Roulette

A jubilant howl emanated from the dressing room last night at Roulette seconds before the nine members of Mary Prescott’s ensemble took the stage for her hauntingly immersive performance piece Loup Lunaire. It began rather coyly but quickly took a much darker turn. Part choral suite, part dance performance, the choreography was every bit as compelling yet as enigmatic as the music, to the point where it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the plot. Inspired by the wolf mother archetype – depicted here as responsible yet more or less alone – along with behavioral cycles in nature, the piece is a precursor to another work, Mother Me, which Prescott and Cara Search will perform on May 6 as part of a semi-monthly Roulette residency.

Luisa Muhr was the first to let loose a howl onstage, but it wasn’t long before the responding round of wolven voices from the rest of the group – Prescott herself stage left, joined by Search, Noa Fort, Ariadne Greif, Joy Havens, Nina Dante and the lone man in the cast, Chanan Ben Simon – had reached a peak and then scattered downward.

Prescott’s strikingly translucent, distamtly disquieting themes gave the singers plenty of room to join in increasingly intricate webs of counterpoint, and sometimes back from there. The compositions evoked styles as diverse as rapturous Hildegard hymns, wistful Appalachian folk, Caroline Shaw’s maze-like work with Roomful of Teeth, Angelo Badelamenti’s Twin Peaks soundtracks, and Indian canatic music. What was consistent was a pervasive unease, amplified by how surealistically one segment would overlap into another.

Meanwhile, onstage behind the dancers, guitarist David Torn added extra levels of angst, or menace, or outright dread, with airy washes of sound as well as several long, majestically mournful Pink Floyd interludes. Nobody does David Gilmour in lingering cumulo-nimbus mode better than this guy.

The series of narratives among the dancers were similarly somber, much of the action in elegant slo-mo. Their buoyantly simple, flowing costumes were sometimes augmented by a little onstage dressup – Prescott’s expression as she was tidied and prepared for the next stage was priceless, and too good to give away. Purification, or at least forgiveness for some unnamed (or unnamable) sin seems to be part of the picture – no spoilers. It’s impossible to find fault with this piece. The dancers are all strong singers, individual role-playing was sharp, choreography briskly executed, lighting a thoughtful enhancement, and the guitar was as vivid as the vocals. Roulette hit a bullseye in commissioning this.

Best Manhattan Venue of 2019: New Blood!

The premise of New York Music Daily’s annual choice for best Manhattan and Brooklyn venue dovetails with the ultimate mission here: to spread the word about music that deserves a wider audience. Trouble is, in the years since 2007 when the old Lakeside Lounge won the award for Best Manhattan Venue (at a predecessor blog), it’s been a real stretch to come up with a different pick every year. The list of contenders which have closed since then eclipses the dwindling number that might conceivably be called the best in the borough today.

That explains why, in the past three years, the Best Manhattan Venue award has gone to a museum, the free concert and events space at Manhattan’s flagship cultural institution, and a public park with frequent live music during the warmer months. Of all the places that have earned the award over the past dozen years, five have closed, one moved to Brooklyn, and another has pretty much gotten out of the music business. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings. And it would be a waste of time, old news, to flag a famous venue like one of the big Lincoln Center halls, or the Apollo, which rarely has concerts anymore anyway.

So what’s left? Most all of the best jazz spots have priced themselves out of the equation: it would be ridiculous to call a club the borough’s best venue if the people who live here can’t afford it. That’s even more of a problem at the classical venues. And the ones that aren’t obscenely expensive usually have sonic issues.

Meanwhile, the number of rock joints which might possibly deserve consideration is down to a grand total of three. Of those, Bowery Electric has erratic sound, hit-and-miss booking and the nerve to charge a cover for their second room, a tiny upstairs rehearsal closet that only has space to squeeze in the band along with (maybe) two other people. Shrine, which ended up winning Best Manhattan Venue for 2011 after a very impressive first year in business, has become a venue of last resort. And Rockwood Music Hall, whose northernmost original room was once a strong contender, is now no more than a minor-league Arlene Grocery. Even if the sound is great, most of the music there is a joke, clueless American Idol wannabes and their Instagram followers from New Jersey. Rock is very much alive throughout the rest of the world, but in Manhattan it’s flatlining.

So it’s kind of a big deal that for 2019, New York Music Daily has a new pick for Best Manhattan Venue: the Glass Box Theatre at the New School. The main attraction at the intimate, glass-walled first-floor space on 13th St. is the Stone, John Zorn’s legendary jazz, avant garde and improvisational music series that got priced out of its longtime East Village home a couple of years ago. There are also regular free concerts here featuring up-and-coming artists from the New School’s highly regarded classical and jazz programs, along with occasional theatrical or literary events.

The Glass Box Theatre is also currently home to Luisa Muhr‘s reliably cutting-edge Women Between Arts series, the only one in New York dedicated exclusively to multidisciplinary women artists. Whether there’s a jazz band cooking up front, or a quieter act, the sound is consistently excellent. Cover is always affordable: the Stone is typically $20, and Muhr’s series offers a sliding scale, with the policy of not turning away the underpaid or underemployed for lack of funds.

Audiences come to listen; the staff and security are helpful and chill, 180 degrees from the snooty hostility you get just a few blocks to the south at NYU. No, the Glass Box Theatre isn’t a fulltime music space, but neither are Bryant Park, the Lincoln Center atrium, or the American Folk Art Museum, the three most recent picks here for Best Manhattan Venue. As more and more of the borough’s real estate is appropriated exclusively for speculators, we have to make do with what we have – at least until we have a Sanders or Warren Presidency, and a shot at reclaiming what’s been stolen from us. In the meantime, it’s a good thing we have this cozy little spot to keep an old tradition going and hopefully start some new ones.

Elegantly Riveting Intensity in Brooklyn with Luisa Muhr and C. Lavender

Last night at Spectrum dancer Luisa Muhr and sound sculptor C. Lavender improvised a literally mesmerizing, often haunting multimedia sonata of sorts, complete with variations on a series of recurrent tropes and gestures. It had all the intensity of butoh, but none of the brutality.

Muhr, dressed in a stark, loosely fitting black cotton top and pants, her hair back, typically moved in sync with Lavender’s electroacoustically-enhanced drumming –  even if that rhythm was often implied. Her timing was striking to witness. For much of the performance, Muhr swayed, turned, rose and fell at halfspeed, as if underwater. Much of her time onstage was spent contending with an invisible tether:, which seemed to encircle her, encumber her feet, hung in front of her face where she could analyze it, then became a sudden threat. But just when it seemed that it had finally sent her into a fetal position, and then a crumpled form at the very edge of the stage, she rose from the depths, slowly but ineluctably, in an understatedly steely display of athletic command.

Muhr’s green eyes are profoundly expressive: like a young Liv Ullmann, she excels at channeling very subtle or conflicted emotions. At times, Muhr’s features were undeterred yet shadowed with unease, especially toward the end of the show where she dealt with what could have been an unseen mirror, a hostile presence lurking beyond the stage, or both. Likewise, during the tether sequence, she fixed her gaze with an unwavering composure but also a profound sadness. This may have been a job she had to finish, but it was ripping her up inside. What exactly was responsible for that, we never found out, although any woman in the current political climate faces an uphill struggle with no comfortable conclusion in sight.

Lavender played a set of syndrums and also a dulcimer, which she hit gently with mallets. She ran the sometimes murky, sometimes much more pointillistic torrents of beats through a mixer for effects that diminished from turbulence to a trickle; then the river rose again. Meanwhile, even while the sound looped back through the mix, she doubled the rhythm, adding a layer of arid, blippy textures above the thump and throb. There were also moments when the sound subsided where she’d get the dulcimer quietly humming, or would build austere blocks of close harmonies and spin then them back through the vortex. Seated centerstage, there was as much elegance as restlessness in her performance, something drummers rarely get to channel: often, she was just as fascinating to watch as Muhr.

Catchy, Edgy, Shapeshifting Art-Rock and a West Village Show from Eclectic Violinist Dina Maccabee

Dina Maccabee is one of the most versatile and interesting violinists and violists around. She’s a founding member of the Real Vocal String Quartet, and an important part of creepy Twin Peaks cover band the Red Room Orchestra. She’s also a bandleader in her own right and has a glistening, deliciously textured new art-rock album, The Sharpening Machine streaming at Sundcloud. Her next New York gig is on a bill she fits right in with, this August 17 at 3:30 PM as part of Luisa Muhr’s monthly Women Between Arts show – New York’s only multidisciplinary series focusing exclusively on woman performers – at the Glass Box Theatre at the New School, 55 W 13th St. Other artists on this highly improvisational program include dancer Azumi Oe with drummer Carlo Costa and bassist Sean Ali, plus dancer Oxana Chi with performance artist Layla Zami and pianist Mara Rosenbloom. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but everyone is worth seeing. Cover is $20, and be aware that the series has a policy that no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Maccabee’s tunesmithing on the new album is playful and catchy yet trippy and opaque. Echo effects bounce back and forth throughout the briskly bouncy title track, which opens the record. Maccabee runs her pizzicato textures and gentle wafts of sound through a kaleidoscope of effects alongside Brett Farkas’ spare, watery guitar, with hints of both the Cocteau Twins and Pink Floyd.

Maccabee’s crystalline vocals recall Aimee Mann in Could You Be Right, a verdantly orchestrated, surrealistically marching anthem in a Wye Oak vein. Sad Sad Sad Sad Sad Song is a rippling bluegrass banjo tune as ELO might do it – with a nifty fiddle solo and a resolute woman out front. Hey You – an original, not the Pink Floyd “classic rock” radio staple – brings to mind psychedelic pop icon Jenifer Jackson in a pensive, atmospheric moment: “My knowledge is written on my nails and my knuckles, if you refuse to see,” Maccabee’s narrator advises.

Tall Tall Trees is an unselfconsciously gorgeous late Beatlesque anthem set in a theatre where the show never starts; Roger Reidbauer contribufes a deliciously spiraling, dipping guitar solo.

An uneasily charming glockenspiel solo opens Even When the Stars Align, Maccabee’s vocals dancing over a slowly swaying, artfully spare web of textures. “I’m still a million miles away,” she laments. Her acoustic guitar lingers alongside Reidbauer’s spare lines amid the shimmer of the moody, slowly waltzing Green Again, which could be a great lost track from Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds.

Little Bite has a suspiciously sardonic, quasi-martial sway powered by Sylvain Carton’s baritone sax : it’s sort of the missing link between Bjork and Hungry March Band. But I Do is a ruefully swinging oldtimey country tune. The final cut is It Doesn’t Have to Be Okay, a brooding trip-hop tune with big accordion-like swells. The level of detail and creativity on this record is amazing: there are too many neat touches to enumerate here. You’ll see this on the best albums of the year page here in December.

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

A Potentially Paradigm-Shifting Series of Women Performers at the New School

In conversation with the audience and performers at her potentially paradigm-shifting new series Women Between Arts at the New School yesterday, singer/actress/impresario Luisa Muhr contemplated the complexities of branding interdisciplinary works. How do you market something that resists easy categorization? Maybe by calling it what it is: outside the box. Considering the turnout, there definitely is an audience for what might be the only interdisciplinary series focusing on women performers whose work encompasses so many different idioms in New York right now.

When Muhr springboarded the project, she’d assumed that Women Between Arts would be one of at least five or six ongoing programs here. But this seems to be the only one at the moment – If there’s another, would they please identify themselves, because they could be doing very important work!

Dance on the same program as storytelling? Sure! Writer/choreographer Allison Easter wryly remarked that audiences at dance performances don’t mind being talked to. Her piece on the bill featured dancers Tiffany Ogburn and Paul Morland subtly and then explosively tracing Easter’s spoken-word narrative about a couple of American college girls intent on thwarting a would-be rapist on a train winding its way through the Alps.

Klezmatics violinist Lisa Gutkin proved to be the ideal headliner for a bill like this. Born and raised in a secular Jewish family in Sheepshead Bay, the songwriter/actress revealed an insatiably curious worldview that mirrored her sizzling musical chops, via excerpts from her one-woman show. Likewise, part of her eclectic background stems from the demands of being a highly sought-after sidewoman. Irish reels? OK. Tango? Si! Klezmer? No problem! She grew up with that culture, inspired by her immigrant grandmother, who would hitchhike upstate to her bungalow where she’d book artists like Pete Seeger to entertain her garment worker friends.

And Muhr illustrated her own, similarly eclectic background with wistful projections, a subtly humorous dance piece and poetry, following her own Greek immigrant great-grandmother’s journey as a refugee from Istanbul to Vienna. In pushing the boundaries of diverse idioms, a program like Muhr’s has the potential to spur the growth of new synapses for both audiences and performers.

The next Women Between Arts performance features songwriter Jean Rohe, choreographer Sasha Kleinplatz, brilliant carnatic violinist Trina Basu, singer/actress Priya Darshini and Brooklyn Raga Massive tabla player Roshni Samlal on January 7 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St.