The annual Prototype Festival began as a forum for avant garde opera but has grown to encompass lavish choral suites, dystopic Balkanic epics and noir cabaret. Last night at Here’s black-box theatre in SoHo, the performance was a dark, similarly eclectic rock show with projections for a backdrop.
Violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s career spans from classical, new music and the far expanses of jazz to the brooding rock of her Rabbit Rabbit Radio ensemble. This time out she led her seven-piece group – her husband Matthias Bossi on drums; Jeremy Flower and Michael Abraham on guitars (the former doubling on keys); Ariel Parkington of the Parkington Sisters on violin, Kristin Slipp on backing vocals and George Ban-Weiss on bass – through her new, distantly stormy, nebulously kinetic suite Black Inscription, which explores oceanic eco-catastrophe.
While the overall atmosphere remained on the somber side, tempos and meters shifted and varied considerably throughout the more-or-less contiguous suite. Bossi propelled the beast with remarkable restraint, taking into consideration the space’s intimate, rather dry sonics.
Likewise, Kihlstedt and Parkington’s violin lines were terse and purposeful, whether building angst-fueled, emphatic crescendos or more atmospheric harmonies. The polyrhythmic interweave between voices – pretty much everyone in the band sang – and the instruments added to the relentless unease.
The group opened with a twinkling, undulating, funk-tinged psychedelic soul instrumental that brought to mind early 70s Mies Davis, or a Roy Ayers Film score. From there the group worked spare, alternating voices over odd meters, with a 80s Peter Gabriel-style anthemic sensibility. Then they went more hypnotic and intense, bringing to mind early 80s Siouxsie & the Banshees without the microtonal vocals.
The suite’s centerpiece was the title number, a slow, towering, Pink Floyd-style theme referencing what appeared to be some sort of ominous seaside motif. That symphonic grandeur would recur later in the suite, as did that reference, in one of a handful of voiceovers by a veteran deep-sea diver.
Lingering, occasionally flaring minor-key guitar melodies rose and fell over a fat low end sometimes taken even further into the depths by the bass’s octave pedal or envelope-shifting effects. Meanwhile, the strings, swooshy keyboards and the womens’ voices built lushly kaleidoscopic astringencies that alluded to but never rose to fever pitch. This was more about shock and awe than sheer terror, although there were a couple of detours into David Lynch film score-style menace.
The visuals and voiceovers took a backseat to the music: glistening sea life in the depths and infrequent detritus quickly gave way to geometric overlays, while the narrator mused about the nuts and bolts – and thrills – of descending far beneath the waves. If we’re lucky, the Prototype Festival folks had the presence of mind to record one of these performances so that everyone who missed it can enjoy it. This show was definitely worth releasing as a live album – and will reprised today to conclude the festival, with performances at 4 and 9:30 PM. Tickets are pricy – $30 – but the show is worth it, and they’re still available as of this morning.