New York Music Daily

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Tag: prototype festival

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

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Bora Yoon Holds the Crowd Spellbound at La MaMa

Bora Yoon is a connoisseur of high, ringing sounds, and the things that make them. Wednesday night at La MaMa, in the first of a four-day run of her new program Sunken Cathedral, she employed her signature instrument, singing bowls, in addition to rattles, chimes, a music box, pizzicato violin and several items typically found on the stove or in the cupboard. She also played piano, tersely and evocatively, in a thoroughly opiated Erik Satie-meets-Cab Calloway vein, acting out a surrealistic, shadowy, existential one-woman play of sorts against a shapeshifting prerecorded backdrop incorporating both electronic atmospherics and snatches of material from her enveloping, enigmatic new album from which the production takes its name.

Onstage, the exit and re-entry point was the grandfather clock in the corner, giving Yoon the chance to change costumes – and also allow for flitting appearances by a male dancer dressed in traditional Korean garb, complete with twirling tassel atop his colorful cap. Yoon bookended the performance with pre-renaissance vocal works augmented by atmospherics: she has a crystalline chorister’s voice and held the sold-out crowd rapt along with her. In between, she took brief detours into brooding art-rock, lengthy, nebulous vocalese sculptures and a couple of horror-film interludes complete with scary shadow puppetry and projections. Early on, she got an almost imperceptible doppler effect going with what looked like a crystal on a spinning turntable, a more subtle take on an old Andrew Bird shtick.

The theme of the album – recently reviewed here – and the show are something along the lines of “if you don’t make your life happen, it’ll happen to you.” Despite the pretty relentlessly moody ambience, what was most striking was how absolutely hilarious Yoon can be. A couple of momentary appearances by Yoon’s mom speaking animated Koreanglish into her voicemail drew predictable chuckles. But the funniest sequence involved a countertop, an oven and the things around it. The sight gags were priceless, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil them – suffice it to say that Yoon is hardly the first person to peel and then munch on a carrot while singing, but she didn’t let it throw her off, pitchwise or otherwise, no small achievement. The rest of the La MaMa run, continuing through tomorrow night as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, is sold out, but there is a wait list and several people on that list made it into Wednesday’s show.

A Sonically Thrilling, Disquieting North American Premiere For Karmina Silec’s Toxic Psalms

Last night at St. Ann’s Warehouse, the mighty but graceful Slovenian women’s choir Carmina Slovenica premiered their founder Karmina Silec’s breathtaking and equally relevant multimedia suite, Toxic Psalms to open this year’s Prototype Festival. It only makes sense that this work would come out of a part of the world which has seen so much trouble in the past couple of decades, yet it transcends national identity. Themes of absence and distant, implied horror were ever-present, as was a defiant feminist sensibility. The choice of music spanned the centuries and the globe and was all the more fascinating, and relevant, for the ambitious and striking arrangements of all but one of the older works. And while it wouldn’t be exactly accurate to characterize the movements of the choir as dance – Silec calls it “choregie” – the choreography was just as ambitious, and amplified the disturbing quality of the performance. The program repeats tonight at 8 PM as well as at 3 and 8 PM on Saturday, Jan 10, and at 5 PM on Jan 11. As of the wee hours of today (Jan 9), there are still a handful of tickets left for tonight’s and Sunday’s performances as well as a few more for Saturday’s shows. From the stunned reaction of the crowd last night, if you’re on the fence about seeing this, you’d better move.

The somberly clad choir opened with their backs to the rear wall of the stage beneath a black veil, justice depicted by a lone member gingerly balancing a couple of upside-down umbrellas on her head. The women massed and mingled apprehensively and took their time approaching what could have been a graveyard, yet in doing so they seemed to find empowerment and maybe closure. They walked in line through a field of lemons (what that was about was never clear) and managed not to make lemon zest out of them. Silec’s direction toyed with crowd dynamics on both the conformist and nonconformist sides with a coldly sardonic humor that offered momentary respite from the lingering bleakness of the music. The group artfully employed mirrors;, finally one of them broke the fourth wall in a flittingly comedic but ultimately chilling bit of narration.

Of the music on the bill, seemingly only the excerpt from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which concluded the program on an unconvincingly calm, benedictory note, was left more or less intact. Eerie Slavic close harmonies, from resonantly brooding to jarring and horrific, were everywhere, as was dizzying yet meticulously orchestrated counterpoint, from a sarcastic Karin Rehnkvist arrangement of a medley of Finnish folk songs through an aptly titled Lozje Lebic sound mosaic. Brief passages from Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and a plaintive more-or-less solo performance of a Syrian hymn offered a familiar, sheltering ambience before the storm that exploded at the edge of the crowd in Orwellian terror, a long excerpt from the Kalevala with music by Veljo Tormis. Some of the program’s early narration suggested that citizens of the current crop of democratic countries may be ill suited to overthrowing evil forces in power: this brought that idea full circle with an in-your-face intensity that would make Pussy Riot proud.

Bora Yoon Brings Her Magically Enveloping Sonics to the Prototype Festival

Bora Yoon‘s music is ethereal yet deeply resonant. The Korean-American composer-performer’s first love was choral music, but her work also encompasses ambient soundscapes and tinges of pan-Asian folk themes. She has a penchant for site-specific works and a track record for artful manipulation of sonically diverse spaces: McCarren Pool, the Park Avenue Armory and city rooftops among them. While her signature sound is rapt and otherworldly, she spices that with a quirky, charming sense of humor. She’ll be airing out pieces from her latest album Sunken Cathedral – streaming at Spotify – throughout a four-night stand from Jan 14 through 17 at 7:30 PM (with a 10 PM show on Jan 15 and a 2 PM show on the 17th in addition) at LaMama, 74A E 4th St. at the ground floor theatre there as part of this year’s Prototype Festival. Tix are $25.

Knowing Yoon’s music for what it is, it’s hard to tell how much of the album is looped and processed and how much of it is organic, though to Yoon’s credit, it seems to be almost completely the latter: her electronic touches are deft and subtle. She opens it with her own arrangement of a Hildegard von Bingen antiphon, her crystalline voice rising over subtly shifting organ drones and dizzyingly hypnotic counterrythms. And then, out of nowhere, birdsong! It sets the stage for pretty much everything else to come.

Clamoring churchbells give way to ethereally ringing singing bowls and stately long-tone vocalese throughout Father Time, the second track. She follows that with the somber, achingly crescendoing piano ballad Finite Infinity. She radically reinvents the renaissance standard In Paradisum as an echoey tone poem, moving up from a tense more-or-less solo intro with a dog barking in the background, to a duet of sorts with four-piece choir New York Polyphony. After that, there’s a pricelessly funny, hynotically dancing vocalese-and-percussion piece featuring Yoon’s irrepressible mom via voicemail.

More churchbells, waterside sounds and windy ambience mingle with Yoon’s vocals, taking the medieval plainchant of O Pastor Animarum into the here and now. She does much the same with Speratus, interpolating a lively loop by chamber ensemble Sympho. Then she shifts gears with the increasingly agitated Little Box of Horrors, a spoken-word-and-loops piece.

Weights & Balances adds noir cabaret-tinged piano beneath Yoon’s New York angst-fueled existentialist contemplation of posterity and self-doubt: “Fate is what happens to you when you do absolutely nothing,” she asserts, seemingly as much a message to herself as to the world. The closest thing to traditional renaissance polyphony here is Semaphore Conductus, the choir’s precise sonics peppered with blippy percussive bits a la Radiohead.

In New American Theatre, Sekou Sundiata narrates his understatedly corrosive portrait of our post-9/11 New York surveillance state over sarcastically dreamy loops. The album winds up with the very subtly mutating, mesmerizingly circular Doppler Dreams. It’ll be interesting to see how much sonic magic Yoon can coax out of the dry black-box theatre space at LaMama: this may call for more of the onstage theatrics that she typically incorporates into her show.