New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: minimalist

Denise Mei Yan Hofmann’s New Works Hold the Audience Rapt at Spectrum

Spectrum was packed last night. Granted, composer/guitarist Denise Mei Yan Hofmann used to be in a popular rock band, the wickedly catchy, lyrical Changing Modes, but all the same it was awfully cool to see a venue filled to capacity with young people listening intently to serious composed music. A tantalizingly brief program of new chamber works revealed that Hofmann is a young composer who’s already developed a distinctive and thoughtfully compelling voice. Her harmonies transcend the tonal/twelve-tone dichotomy; her narratives are vivid, she doesn’t waste notes and is rather meticulous about that.

Hofmann performed the opening diptych, a more-or-less steadily strolling miniature featuring lots of close harmonies and flitting exchanges between her terse, minimalist guitar and Salome Scheidegger‘s piano. Hofmann described it afterward as “harsh” – as a depiction of push-pull, lost in the wilderness, randomly searching and then very purposefully seeking a way out, it hit the mark.

Scheidegger played Hofmann’s Dear Son of Memory solo, an aching and dynamically rich depiction of letters never sent. It turned out to be a considerably challenging work. Scheidegger didn’t shy away from it, beginning almost as a march and then negotiating through starlit austerities, flitting sort-of-segues and then a rather violently percussive crescendo before finding home in the calm beyond it. One of Hofmann’s signature tropes seems to be working tension against a central point, raga style, a prominent and effective device here.

The final piece was a triptych for string trio, Deep Calls Unto Deep – another 2014 composition – performed elegantly by violinist Francesca Dardani, violist Yumi Oshima and cellist Xue Yang Liu. With a little editing, this could be something really special. At the core, it’s a rondo, a carefully articulated exchange of voices which began with a rather wounded, austere tone, picked up the pace with a precise, balletesque pulse in the second movement and then with a more resonant, angst-fueled quality in the third even as the rhythm came back to the forefront. The Debussy String Quartet seems to be an influence.

If there’s any criticism of what Hofmann does, it’s that she needs to work on her transitions. There were places throughout both the solo piano and trio pieces which came across as momentary lapses. Full stops would have been one answer; fleshing out those fragmentary segues to eliminate jarring with what came before and after would also be an option. So would nixing them completely. But those are minor quibbles. Here’s looking forward to what this individualistic and auspicious new voice has in store.

A Chillingly Lynchian Soundtrack from Nathan Halpern

In the New York rock world, Nathan Halpern is known as an intense, melodic guitarist, a member of Kerry Kennedy’s brilliant Ghostwise band and a first-class dark rock songwriter in his own right. The film world knows Halpern as a composer. His most recent project is the soundtrack to the documentary film Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, playing at Film Forum through July 5, on HBO all summer long, followed by a national theatrical release which is still in the works. Halpern is a master of noir, and this haunting, Eastern European-tinged theme and variations establishes him as a sort of 21st century counterpart to Angelo Badalamenti. One word to describe this: Lynchian. Analytically speaking, it’s absolutely fascinating how Halpern develops and orchestrates a series of variations on a series of allusively menacing ideas. But nobody’s going to sit and analyze this: as haunting, Balkan-inflected High Romantic angst, it’s something to get completely lost in. Other than the gypsy music, and Badalamenti – whose minimalist work with David Lynch comes to mind most obviously here – there are echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores, the Tin Hat Trio’s contributions to the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack, and the occasional reference to Bach or Beethoven. In other words, this guy isn’t messing around, diving into the shadows from the first few lingering notes from his piano.

A lot of these pieces are tantalizingly brief, clocking in at just a couple of minutes or even less: how they segue into each other makes it next to impossible to keep track of which is which unless you’re keeping a close eye on which track is playing. There are two main themes. The first, a tensely moody, chromatically-charged melody, features Halpern’s piano and a string section of O’Death’s Robert Pycior (who is credited as co-writer of the main theme and a couple of variations) on violin and viola, Jody Redhage on cello and Andrew Platt on bass plus Thurston Moore collaborator Mary Lattimore on harp. The second is a morosely atmospheric waltz anchored by Halpern’s echoey, often bloodcurdling music-box broken chords. The title theme recurs again and again, strings rising and falling against it, sometimes warmly and lushly, sometimes agonizingly. The waltz channels unrequited love and longing as it recurs and shifts tempos, at one point morphing into a dark little Serbian dance. There’s also a chillingly stately interlude that toys cruelly with a Bach Invention motif; a gleefully dancing Balkan piece led by Pycior’s stark phrasing; and a couple of artful atmospheric passages where droning textures move sepulchrally into and then out of the picture. The orchestrations manage to be simultaneously terse yet enveloping, and are packed with neat, shadowy little touches: is that the choir patch on a synthesizer? No, that’s Lori Fisher’s ghostly, distant vocals leading into that stern, tense Jody Redhage pedal note. And V.S. Nabakov’s water-drop percussion adds a cruel inevitability to a miniature Beethoven-tinged nocturne about the passage of time, lit up by Halpern’s spaciously reverberating, plaintive electric guitar.

What about the film, and Abramovic? She’s a Belgrade-born performance artist, now in her sixties, who’s made a career of putting herself on display: she may be your cup of tea, or she may not. Not having seen the film, it’s not clear to what degree it comments on what she does, if at all, and the soundtrack gives nothing away. The suspense is crushing. The itunes link is here.