New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: microtonal music

A Riveting, Poignant Collection of Alicia Terzian Microtonal Symphonic Works

One of the most spellbindingly edgy orchestral releases of the past several months is violinist Rafael Gintoli and the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Argentine composer Alicia Terzian’s Violin Concerto and Three Pieces for Strings, streaming at Spotify. Each is a prime early example of the paradigm-shifting microtonal work she would immerse herself in throughout the decades after she’d completed the former in 1955. Beyond the sheer catchiness yet persistently otherworldly quality of this music, both works are also rich with the slashing chromatics common to Terzian’s Armenian heritage.

The first movement of the Violin Concerto begins with a gorgeously ominous chromatic riff but quickly dips to pensive, sustained violin lines over misty stillness. Orchestra and soloist match Terzian’s determination to cover all the emotional bases here: a dancing heroic theme; vibrato-infused longing; and striking contrasts with the bassoon, oboe and full ensemble of winds against the soloist. After a deliciously blustery crescendo and some deviously orchestrated fugal moments, the music calms and the harmonies grow starrier, microtones coming into closer, uneasier focus. Gintoli’s matter-of-factness in the surrealistic yet ironclad tunefulness of his cadenza toward the end is one of many of his high points here.

The hauntingly windwept second movement is based on a plaintive song from the collection of the great Armenian composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet, a father telling his daughter that her mother has died. Slowly, conductor Vladimir Lande develops an anthemic drive; again, Gintoli nimbly negotiates between resolve and persistent tension over a dancing pulse, which comes broodingly full circle.

The concluding movement begins with a gusty, astringently enveloping, rather bellicose theme, taking on more of a puckish quasi-Tschaikovskian bounce fueled by percussion, harp and high winds. Gintoli takes centerstage in the bucolic waltz that follows; the ensemble take it out with a defiantly marionettish strut. 

The Three Pieces for Strings date from a year earlier: it is astonishing how Terzian had already concretized her visionary style by then. Few western composers have written such memorable melodies utilizing harmonies more sophisticated than the traditional scale. The first part of the triptych, Sunset Song comes across as a stark Armenian melody in heavy microtonal disguise, calming to hazily echoing atmospherics.

The Pastorale with Variations begins by following a circling trajectory, but more rhythmically, before a lullaby of sorts drifts in. The distantly wary conclusion is one of the album’s most stunningly catchy moments. Momentary stillness and suspense alternate with a jaunty edge in the finale, a country dance.

While Terzian is revered in the microtonal demimonde, and her music has been widely performed, it deserves to be ubiquitous. Almost seventy years after she wrote these pieces, the world is still catching up with her.

A Strange, Disquieting Album For Disquieting Times

Pianist Cory Smythe has carved out an individualistic place between the worlds of indie classical, jazz improvisation and the avant garde. The strange and often disquieting sonics of his new album Accelerate Every Voice – streaming at Bandcamp – are created by a sampler which plays quartertones triggered by his phrases on the piano keys, a creepy bell-like device that brings to mind Vijay Iyer‘s collaborations with Hafez Modirzadeh as well as Aruan Ortiz‘s work with Amir ElSaffar.

The opening track, Northern Cities Vowel Shift sets the stage, the pianist joined by a vocal quintet interweaving leaps and bounds amid the uneasy chimes. Smythe explains that the unorthodox lineup of singers he asssembled – Kyoko Kitamura, Michael Mayo, Raquel Acevedo Klein and a vocal rhythm section of Steven Hrycalak on “vocal bass” and Kari Francis on “vocal percussion” – are often meant to evoke the kind of blithe optimism a collegiate choir: “Maybe a complicated kind of optimism, a poisoned-by-whiteness American kind of optimism.”

The Andrew Hill and James Weldon Johnson inspirations for the blippy, distantly hip-hop tinged title track don’t really come through, although Smythe’s lithe ripples and runs make a sharp contrast with the vocalists’ poltergeist flickers.

Track three, Marl Every Voice rises and falls with a distant, chilly menace and an occasional hint of gospel. There are two Kinetic Whirlwind Sculptures here, the first keening and oscillating with washes from inside the piano and what sounds like electronically enabled throat-singing. The second is much simpler and loopier; it sounds like a bunch of monks lowered a carillon to the bottom of a well.

Vehemently has a jaunty, bouncy lattice of vocals and spare piano accents, but also a persistent, unsettled ambience. The miniature Knot Every Voice comes across as a cuisinarted vocal warmup exercise. There’s a more devious, Meredith Monk-like comedic sensibility to Weatherproof Song (a snide reference to the famous Yale ditty, with its pompous lyrics by the king of jungle imperialism, Rudyard Kipling)

The album winds up with the epic Piano and Ocean Waves for Deep Relaxation, written as a follow-up to Annea Lockwood’s global warming-era parable Southern Exposure, where a piano goes out with the rising tide. It works equally well as subtle spoof of new age nature soundscapes, Satoko Fujii-esque extended-technique tone poem and ghostly Brian Eno-style tableau.

Beyond that cocoon of a conclusion, this isn’t easy listening; then again, these aren’t exactly easy times. Fans of intrepid avant garde singers like Ted Hearne and Sofia Rei will love this record.

Transcendent Rarities and World Premieres to Open The 2019 Momenta Festival

A few months ago at a panel discussion at a major cultural institution, a nice mature lady in the crowd asked a famous podcaster – such that a podcaster in the 21st century serious-music demimonde can be famous, anyway – what new composers she should be listening to. Given a prime opportunity to bigup her favorites, the podcaster completely dropped the ball. She hedged. But if she’d thought about the question, she could have said, with complete objectivity, “Just go see the Momenta Quartet. They have impeccable taste, and pretty much everything they do is a world premiere.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the annual Momenta Festival, and the fifteenth for the quartet themselves. There was some turnover in the early years, but the current lineup of violinists Emilie-Anne Gendron and Alex Shiozaki, violist Stephanie Griffin and cellist Michael Haas has solidified into one of the world’s major forces in new music. Opening night of the 2019 Momenta Festival was characteristically enlightening and often genuinely transcendent.

Each of the quartet’s members takes a turn programming one of the festival’s four nights; Griffin, the only remaining member from the original trio that quickly grew into a fearsome foursome, took charge of the opening festivities. Each festival has a theme: this year’s is a retrospective, some of the ensemble’s greatest hits.

In a nod to their trio origins, Shiozaki, Griffin and Haas opened with Mario Davidovsky’s 1982 String Trio. Its central dynamic contrasted sharp, short figures with lingering ambience, the three musicians digging into its incessant, sometimes striking, sometimes subtle changes in timbre and attack.

The night’s piece de resistance was Julian Carrillo’s phantasmagorical, microtonal 1959 String Quartet No. 10, a piece the Momentas basically rescued from oblivion. Alternate tunings, whispery harmonics and a strange symmetric logic pervaded the music’s slowly glissandoing rises and falls, sometimes with a wry, almost parodic sensibility. But at other times it was rivetingly haunting, lowlit with echo effects, elegaic washes underpinned by belltone cello and a raptly hushed final movement with resonant, ambered, mournfully austere close harmonies.

In typical Momenta fashion, they played a world premiere, Alvin Singleton‘s Hallelujah Anyhow. Intriguing variations on slowly rising wave-motion phrases gave way to stricken, shivering pedal notes from individual voices in contrast with hazy sustain, then the waves returned, artfully transformed. Haas’ otherworldly, tremoloing cello shortly before the coy, sudden pizzicato ending was one of the concert’s high points.

After a fond slideshow including shots of seemingly all of the violinists who filtered through the group in their early years, conductor David Bloom and baritone Nathaniel Sullivan joined them for another world premiere commission, Matthew Greenbaum’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a setting of Walt Whitman poetry. The program notes mentioned that the text has special resonance for the composer, considering that he grew up close to where the old ferry left Manhattan and now resides across the river near the Brooklyn landing. Brain drain out of Manhattan much?

It took awhile to gel. At first, the music didn’t seem to have much connection to the text, and the quartet and the vocals seemed to be in alternate rhythmic universes – until about the time Sullivan got to the part cautioning that it is not “You alone who know what it is to be evil.” At that point, the acerbic, steady exchange of voices latched onto a tritone or two and some grimly familiar, macabre riffage, which fell away for longer, rainy-day sustained lines.

The Momenta Festival continues tonight, Oct 16 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, 680 Park Ave at 70th St. with works by Harry Partch, Mario Lavista, Roberto Sierra, Gyorgy Ligeti and Erwin Schulhoff programmed by Gendron. How much does this fantastic group charge for tickets? Fifty bucks? A hundred? Nope. Admission is free but a rsvp is very highly advisable.

[for any strange creatures looking for today’s Halloween month piece, this is it: that Carrillo quartet would be perfect for any serious Halloween playlist]

Two Michael Hersch Works Top the List of the Most Disturbing Music of 2018

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his End Stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow. Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, Similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

End Stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end.  This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album, which was rated the best record of 2011 here. Look for this one on the best albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

Tamalyn Miller Plays an Otherworldly Debut Solo Show in a Chinatown Back Garden

Multi-instrumentalist Tamalyn Miller‘s sepulchral, microtonally-infused one-string fiddle textures are just as essential to Brooklyn art-rockers Goddess‘ sound as frontwoman Fran Pado’s phantasmagorical vocals and creepy storytelling, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Newman’s cinematics. Although Miller is no stranger to building her own instruments and then enhancing others’ music with them, it wasn’t until last night that she made her debut as a solo artist…in the Camera Club of New York’s Baxter Street tenement backyard.

The scene was as anachronistically surreal as a Ben Katchor illustration. The garden itself, with its overgrown brickwork and what looked like a toolshed for hobbits tucked into a shady corner, seemed straight out of 1850. Over the back fence, vehicles were racked up three high at the adjacent carpark. And a reverse gear alarm kept shrieking at the least opportune moments, courtesy of a driver too clueless or sadistic to silence it while waiting for a spot to open up.

But Miller made it all worthwhile. In another trippy juxtaposition, she ran her ancient-sounding homemade instrument through a series of loop pedals and effects, a one-woman orchestra from a village five thousand years ago beamed into the 21st century. She opened by building a hypnotic, texturally shifting vamp out of a simple, allusively dark, bluesy riff. Next was a whispery tableau alluding to a funeral procession, perhaps. Alternately nebulous and stormy loops created by breathing and blowing through a reed became a platform for a couple of enveloping vocal numbers that brought to mind Lesley Flanigan‘s sound sculptures.

The most striking moment in a set that went on for only a tantalizing half an hour was a starkly individualistic version of the old Scottish folk song Two Sisters, its doomed dichotomy brought to life by Miller’s somber low-register melody, spiced with keening, eerily reedy high harmonics that took on an even more menacing edge when run through the reverb pedal. Miller closed on a rapt, still note with a miniature in the same vein as Carlo Costa’s minimalist Natura Morta soundscapes. Throughout this strange, exotic performance, Miller sat calm and inscrutable, her presence matching the music’s enigmatic, quietly feral quality. By contrast, the flamenco band playing outdoors in the park behind Lincoln Center about an hour later seemed impossibly tame. Miller has playfully described her music as straddling the line between a medicinal dose and a lethal one, which made more sense than ever after seeing her perform her own material.

This performance was part of the opening festivities for the provocative, relevant decay-themed current group show at the Camera Club of New York, 126 Baxter St. south of Hester. Curated by Abigail Simon, artists on display include Miller, Simon, Esther Boesche, Anthony Hamboussi, Rania Khalil, Izabela Jurcewicz, Wayne Liu, Theresa Ortolani, Hannah Solin, Andrew Spano, Stephen Spera and Marina Zurkow. The closing reception is August 7 starting at 2 PM.

Violinist Sarah Bernstein Brings Her Focused, Sometimes Haunting Improvisation to the West Village

Violinist Sarah Bernstein plays some of the most thoughtfully compelling music of any New York artist. Blending fearless jazz improvisation, indie classical acerbity and the occasional detour in the direction of performance art, her sound is distinctly her own. She’s the rare musician who can shift in a split-second between standard western harmony and microtonal scales and not sound out of tune, in the same vein as Mat Maneri if somewhat less feral. She’s also got a fantastic new album, Still/Free with her quartet – Kris Davis on piano, Stuart Popejoy on bass and Ches Smith on drums – streaming at Bandcamp, and a show on July 31 at 6 (six) PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. The similarly tuneful Jacob Sacks and somewhat less potentially combustible Tomas Fujiwara step in on piano and drums, respectively, for that gig. Cover is $10 plus a $10 food/drink minimum.

The album’s tempos are on the slow side, the mood pensive and exploratory but tightly focused on mood and purpose. For a listener, it’s music to get lost in. Popejoy’s coy peek-a-boo bass riff opens the album and its title track, Bernstein adding an enigmatic edge at the bottom of her register before spiraling her way skyward as Smith builds a sepulchral mist with his cymbals. Davis’ spacious Satie-esque unease anchors’ the rest of the band from there as they venture out, then Bernstein and Davis trade roles. By the end, it’s 180 degrees from where it started.

Likewise, Davis’s lingering, reflecting-pool phrases ground Bernstein’s similarly judicious, deftly microtonal lines in Paper Eyes, which may have been a slow swing ballad in a past life. The band opens Cede with a sardonically marching theme that brings to mind Zach Brock, Bernstein stairstepping with hints of exasperation as the rhythm section hits a brisk stroll, Davis echoing her uncenteredness.

Similar contrasts play out in Nightmorning: Bernstein’s searchingly rising violin over bass and drums that hint at a steady clave; Popejoy’s minimalism versus Davis’ eerie ripples, Bernstein balancing both sides of a conversation at one point. As it unwinds, it brings to mind Jean-Luc Ponty in a particularly brooding moment.

The album’s fifth track, titled 4=, is its most epic, Bernstein’s playfully ghostly riffs over Davis’ glistening gravitas, the whole band working a push-pull dichotomy against the center, up to a pesky mosquitoey Bernstein solo, After taking a carnivalesque march, they hit a vamp which ironically is the album’s most trad, or at least distinctively 21st century jazz interlude.

The only slightly shorter Jazz Camp feels suspiciously like a parody as its circling central hook goes on, and on, and on, the bandleader adding droll spoken-word passages that do double duty as conduction and get funnier as the track keeps going The album winds up with Wind Chime and its echoey, minimalist atmospherics. As she does with this album, it’s a good bet that Bernstein will get both her smile and her rapture on for the show on the 31st.