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A Powerful, Spellbinding, Paradigm-Shifting Asian Art-Song Evening Tonight at the Lincoln Center Festival

From singer Gong Linna and the Bang on a Can All-Stars‘ new album Cloud River Mountain, it seemed that last night’s release show at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival would have been all about the drama. Sure, there were plenty of spectacular peaks from the fearless Chinese singer and her American backup band, but there were equal amounts subtlety and dynamics in a mix of distinctly Chinese-flavored and just as distinctly western material written by Lao Luo and the Bang on a Can organization’s three-headed monster: Julia WolfeMichael Gordon and David Lang.

There’s just as much of a campy thread through Chinese theatre music as there is in its western counterparts, but Linna doesn’t go there – at least not for this show, anyway.  Varying her delivery from a breathtaking, gale force attack to meticulous, hushed melismas, she held the crowd rapt.

Many of the songs were based on the Asian pentatonic scale: some vividly incorporated the blues scale as well. yet many of them eschewed any kind of Asian reference. The lyrics, mostly in Chinese, were taken from the work of the poet Qu Yuan, whose wild imagery, evocations of river gods and spirits and sun falling out of the sky raise the question of whether ganja had made its way north from India by the third century BC. If not, opium definitely had.

They opened with Luo’s suspensefully vamping, allusively chromatic, crashingly crescendoing Darkness and Light, Linna swooping up and down, the band echoing her; then drummer David Cossin’s 7/4 stomp kicked in. Part ancient Chinese theme, part Mars Volta and part Iron Maiden, maybe, it gave Linna a chance to fake out the crowd with her nuance and a couple of false endings as cellist Ashley Bathgate and clarinetist Ken Thomson flickered and swiped behind her.

Gordon’s When Yi Shot Down the Sun turned out not to be a fiery metal tune but an uneasily waltzing, lyrical pastorale lowlit by washes of guitar, cello and clarinet. Lang’s The Lady in the Moon opened in the same portentous vein as the concert’s first number, awash in resonant guitar, stark cello and clarinet and quickly rose to dramatic heights even as the band held back, bluesy Moody Blues art-rock riffs interspersed with Linna’s high-powered insistence.

Shivery, microtonal low-midrange ambience kicked off Luo’s The Lord in the Clouds, finally punctuated by a stygian piano accent from Vicky Chow. To the band’s infinite credit, they resisted the urge to take the hammering melody completely over the top into grand guignol, choosing achingly tense Asian ambience until a final anguished, hammering conclusion.

Wolfe’s Into the Clouds built slowly and hazily to a hydroponic bluesmetal guitar solo from Mark Stewart, Jimmy Page juxtaposed with Thomson’s crystalline pastoral clarinet colors. Water Mountain, an instrumental co-write by all four composers blended Chow’s harplike piano cascades with soaring clarinet, echoey psychedelic guitar and guest Nie Yunlei’s sheng, a sort of supersized Chinese harmonica. building to a triumphantly cantering cinematic theme.

Linna held nothing back in Gordon’ s insistently pulsing River, played with impressive terseness by the band. Luo’s River Earl was a slight return to pastoral shades and trick endings before a bittersweet chorus, the most vivid and darkly cinematic art-rock number of the night. Linna finally rose out of the haze with a fevered, anguished wail

Tilted, by Julia Wolfe was awash om suspenseful atmospherics and creepy melismas from  Linna. The group built David Lang’s Girl with Mountain ever so slowly – remember, it takes a long time to climb a mountain – reaching terrified, majestic heights anchored by Chow’s steady, jabbing piano. They encored with the wildfire, galloping syllabication of  Luo’s Mountain Spirit The show repeats tonight, July 15 at 8 PM at the Lynch Theatre at Fordham Law School, 524 W 59th St. west of 10th Ave. $25 tickets are still available; if you can find a train to get you into Manhattan tonight, you would be crazy to miss this.

High-Voltage Chinese Singer Gong Linna Teams Up with New York Avant Garde Mainstays At This Month’s Lincoln Center Festival

If you could see Bjork backed by Lark’s Tongues in Aspic-era King Crimson – or the Velvet Underground, for that matter – singing Asian-tinged art-songs, would you go to the show? That’s an approximation of what Chinese chanteuse Gong Linna sounds like, backed by the irrepressibly mutable Bang on a Can All-Stars, on her new album Cloud River Mountain. It’s streaming at Bandcamp, and she and the band are playing an album release stand of sorts, with shows at 8 PM on July 14 and 15 at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St,; as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. $25 seats are still available as of today.

Linna has the kind of melismatic, dramatically modulated, expressive voice typically found in Chinese opera – but she switches out mannered precision for raw, feral power. The album comprises songs by four composers; most of the lyrics. are taken from the works of Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who wrote around the third century BC. Linna sings them in the original Mandarin except for two English translations. The group – Ashley Bathgate on cello, Robert Black on bass, Vicky Chow on piano, David Cossin on drums and percussion, Mark Stewart on guitar and Ken Thomson on clarinets – has a blast with them.

The opening track, Lou Luo’s Yun Zhong Jun, depicts a dramatic encounter with a deity, triplet melody grounded in low-register guitar and bass clarinet. Gracefully circling piano and eventually vibraphone make appearances as the music rises, a mashup of artsy metal and Chinese folk. Linna’s extended cadenza, where she finally hands off to Thomson’s clarinet is subtly delicious.

The title track, by Julia Wolfe, evokes a swarm of flies, methodically expanding outward until all of a sudden it’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, fueled by Stewart’s fiery guitar and Bathgate’s acidic, shivery cello. The lyric may be about celestial grandeur…or drugs. It also pushes Linna’s voice to the limits of her linguistic ability.

River, Michael Gordon’s picturesque, endlessly circling, triumphantly polyrhythmic one-chord jam, punctuated by jaunty glissandos, illustrates a dramatic love theme,, Linna really reaching for the rafters. She finally hits a furiously gritty high note to cap it off.

Lao Luo’s dynamically charged pastorale He Bo sets dramatic mythological and river iimagery over contrasting low resonance and sunnier textures, til Bathgate’s cello picks the lock and Linna goes for broke. Girl with Mountain, an allusive tale of exile by David Lang, is a simple, catchy, oddly rhythmic art-rock ballad very reminiscent of Radiohead.

The final two songs are by Lao Luo. Shan Gui is a bitter,  steadily marching  99-percenter lament that alludes to a popular Led Zep number before Linna, Thomson and then Cossin take it skyward. Linna tackles the final cut, Tan Te with a tongue-twisting, machinegunning jazz scat as the band stampedes along. Fans of music as diverse as art-rock old and new, kabuki theatre and traditional Chinese pastorales are going to love this album.

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

Julia Wolfe’s Rage Against the Machine

John Schaefer was onto something when he picked a Carnegie Hall performance of Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer by the Bang on a Can All-Stars as his favorite concert of the year a few years back. Then again, that wasn’t such a difficult choice for the WNYC host. To say that it doesn’t get performed enough simply means that we need more stagings of this eclectic and intense choral/instrumental suite by the Bang on a Can avant garde institution’s house band. It was a rare treat to see the group play it last night at the World Financial Center. If you missed it, you’ll be able to hear the concert in the weeks to come on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC, along with the show tomorrow night, Oct 16 at 7:30 PM here, a new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells (better known as the Exorcist Theme) played by guitarist Grey McMurray with the Wordless Music Orchestra.

Wolfe’s music can be harrowing, but it can also be playful and fun: this piece is both, but more the former than the latter. As usual with her work, context and subtext are everything. This one mashes up the lyrics from a grand total of over 200 versions of the folk song John Henry, the tale of the man with the hammer in his hand who went up against the steam drill. Droll Americana riffs were sprinkled throughout the sometimes austere, sometimes lush, insistently and sometimes cruelly rhythmic work. Singers Molly Quinn, Emily Eagen and Katie Geissinger opened it, developing a hypnotically rapturous theme with the anxiously enveloping quality of a renaissance motet. Then percussionist David Cossin introduced the anvil beat which would serve as antagonist to the resilience and persistence of the echo-fueled vocals and shifting, Louis Andriessen-ish, percussive melodies of the rest of the piece.

Wolfe grew up steeped in Americana, and as she explained before the show, her first stringed instrument was the dulcimer. Guitarist Mark Stewart played some of that, and also the banjo, hammered on his body along with clarinetist Ken Thomson and ended up supplying percussion for a long interlude by stomping out a clog dance rhythm with his boots. Much as that was comic relief, it also viscerally voiced the angst of the man-versus-machine theme. A hauntingly murky, resonant segment about midway through built by bassist Robert Black and cellist Ashley Bathgate drove home the point that John Henry did not survive the duel. Take that forward into the present, then do the math.

Pianist Vicky Chow supplied dulcimer-like plucking inside the piano when she wasn’t hammering out an endless anvil choir on the keys, while Cossin switched between drumkit (heavy on the toms), vibraphone and boomy low timpani. Quinn’s crystalline soprano soared over the meticulous rhythms of the other two singers’ mantralike volleys of lyrics, phrases and syllables, which they repeated ad infinitum, sometimes comedically, sometimes to raise the menace level. Anyone wondering what this was all about needed only to watch how Bathgate was reacting: when things got funny, she couldn’t resist a big grin, but when things got intense, she’d be all business. The original folk song theme finally appeared as a stark coda right before the swirling atmospherics of the conclusion, which turned out to be part gospel, part Arvo Part. Bookmark the Q2 homepage if you want to experience all this for yourself at a yet-to-be-determined date.