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Brooklyn Rider Pair First-Class 21st Century Works with an Iconic String Quartet

Brooklyn Rider are the rare string quartet who seem to have as much fun with the classical canon as they do with the new composers they champion. To violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas, it’s all just good music. Their latest, lavish double-disc set, Healing Modes – streaming at Bandcamp – interpolates some fascinating new compositions among succesive movements of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, a mainstay of their performances (before the lockdown, at least). The new repertoire here challenges the group’s extended technique arguably more than any other recording they’ve done, but they rise to its demands. As usual, among the new works, there are connecting threads, notably a constant tension between atmospherics and bustle. And the Beethoven bristles with surprises and erudition, even if you’ve heard it a million times.

The opening piece, Matana Roberts‘ Borderland is a contrast in ghostly and poltergeist sonics. Microtonal haze gives way to insistent, rhythmic phrases, hectic pizzicato, coy glissandos, and then back. There’s also a loaded, allusive spoken word element that packs a wallop at a time when our constitutional rights have been stolen from us by the lockdowners.

Reena Ismail‘s Zeher (Poison) has a similar resonant/rhythmic dichotomy spiced with doublestops and quavery, Indian-influenced ornamentation, shifting to an unexpectedly anthemic conclusion that brings to mind the quartet’s recordings of Philip Glass.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s Kanto Kechua #2 has acerbically harmonized, tightly leaping phrases, a round of biting chromatics at the center. The quartet revel in these flurries, which obliquely echo Bernard Herrmann film scores, Peruvian folk music and also the Beethoven here.

The second disc begins with Du Yun‘s I Am My Own Achilles Heel, its shivers, squeals, approximations of arioso vocalese and sharply strutting figures receding down to sepulchral ambience and back again. There may be an improvisational element at work here: beyond an animated, allusively Appalachian circle dance at around the halfway mark or so, and pastoral Asian tinges later, it’s hard to tell.

The take of Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma seems even more amiably plucky and subtly anthemic than the version they played as a New York premiere on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2019.

There seems to be new gravitas but also new vigor in the first movement of the Beethoven, compared to the group’s previous interpretations, although their stunningly legato approach throughout hasn’t wavered over the years. It’s less a nocturne than an anthem. There’s lilting grace and delicacy in unexpected moments of movement two, but with plenty of muscle.

The devious Bach quotes amid the hymnal lustre of the third movement are right up front, and irresistible, as is the lushness of its conclusion. The ensemble play up the drollery in the fleeting bit of a fourth movement as much as the bittersweet, Vivaldiesque grace of the final one. These guys know better than most anyone else that this particular quartet is more symphonic than it is chamber music, a celebration of being snatched from the jaws of death. What does it sound like mixed up amid the new compositions? Full disclosure: this blog tweaked the tracklist to play it contiguously. It’s that addictive.

A Contrast in Sonics: Matana Roberts and Supersilent at the Poisson Rouge Last Night

Matana Roberts stole the show at the Poisson Rouge last night. And she played solo, without the electronic rig she often employs. Purposefully, with a disarming, often shattering directness, she built songs without words, drawing on two centuries of gospel, blues and a little swing jazz. The first number was a matter-of-factly strolling gospel tune, more or less. After that, she developed a conversation for two or maybe even three voices, calm and resolute versus more agitated: Eric Dolphy and Coltrane together came to mind.

Although she has daunting extended technique and can squall with the best of them, the singing quality of her tone (which critics would have called cantabile in her days as a classical musician) along with her gentle melismatics told stories of hope and resilience rather than terror. In between numbers, sometimes mid-song, she talked to the crowd with a similarly intimate matter-of-factness. A shout-out to Bernie Sanders met with stony silence – this was a $20 ticket, after all, and beyond the means of a lot of 99-percenters – but by the end of the set, she’d won over everyone. “I don’t think Trump has four years in him,” she mused, which met with a roar of applause.

Roberts explained that for her dad, D.L. Roberts – whom she recently lost – music was an inspiration for political engagement. Her most recent solo album – streaming at Bandcamp – is dedicated to the activists at Standing Rock and has a subtle American Indian influence.

As she wound up her tantalizingly brief set, short of forty minutes onstage, she engaged the crowd, directing them to sing a single, rhythmic tone and then played judicious, sometimes stark phrases around it. In between riffs, she commented on how surreal the months since the election have been, fretted about touring internationally because she’s worried about what kind of trouble’s in store for her as an American, and pondered what it would take to bring a racist to New York to kill a random, innocent stranger. “I don’t think you know either, because we’re all in this together,” she said, unassumingly voicing the shock and horror of millions of New Yorkers – and Americans as well.

When Supersilent finally hit the stage for their second-ever New York concert, their first in thirteen years, the blend of Arve Henriksen’s desolate trumpet against the stygian, almost subsonic ambience of Ståle Storløkken’s vintage keyboards seemed like a perfect segue. Electronic music legend Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod (who has a show at around 9 tonight at Issue Project Room in downtown Brooklyn) mixed the brooding soundscape into a plaintive noir tableau with artful use of loops, reverb and delay, bringing to mind Bob Belden’s brilliant late-career soundtracks.

Then Storløkken hit a sudden, bunker-buster low-register chord that blasted through the club, following with one bone-crushing wave after another. The effect was visceral, and was loud to the point where Henriksen was pretty much lost in the mix. It was impossible to turn away from: pure bliss for fans of dark sonics.

That’s where the strobes began to flicker, and frantically shredded fragments of dialogue began to flit through the mix in tandem with a spastic, seemingly random rhythm. Was this fast-forward horror show a metaphor for how technology jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us, and jerks us…? You get the picture. If that was Supersilent’s message, they made their point. But after thirty seconds, it was overkill. This may not be Aleppo, but in a different way we’ve also been tortured, and were being tortured as the PA continued to squawk and sputter. There’s no shame in assaulting an audience to get a point across, but a respite would have packed a mighty impact at that point. Matana Roberts knows a little something about that.