New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: spectral music

A Chilly Album of Solo Atmospherics For Our Time From Violinist Sarah Bernstein

Violinist Sarah Bernstein has written everything from microtonal jazz to string quartets to jazz poetry. As many artists have done this year, she’s released a solo album, Exolinger, streaming at Bandcamp. As you would expect, it’s her most minimalist yet, a chilly series of reverb-drenched instrumental and vocal soundscapes that directly and more opaquely reflect the alienation and inhumanity we’ve all suffered under the lockdown – outside of Sweden, or Nicaragua, or South Dakota, anyway.

The album’s first track, Carry This is a series of loopy car horn-like phrases that get pushed out of the picture by noisy fragments pulsing through the sonic picture, the reverb on Bernstein’s violin up so high that it isn’t immediately obvious she’s plucking the strings. It could be a song by Siouxsie & the Banshees spinoff the Creatures.

The second track, Ratiocinations is an increasingly assaultive series of variations on echo effects using a variety of chilly reverb timbres. The third piece, Tree, is definitely one for our time:

Crisis of mixed proportions
Manageable in ways
Mitigated, maximized, handled, contained
Sitting outside the birds have sirens
Fresh city air
The tree has been here awhile,
Has always been here
Before 1984, before 2020

Does Ghosts Become Crowds refer to a return toward normalcy…or a parade of the dead? The mechanical strobe of the grey noise behind Bernstein’s spare vocalese seems to indicate the latter.

The Plot works on multiple levels. On the surface, it’s a lengthy, shivery, blustery commentary – and demonstration – of the music inherent in language, and vice versa. In this case, apocalyptic industrial chaos trumps pretty much everything.

Through Havoc is a series of echoey, crunchy, noisy loops. “How strong is your will? Do you last a few hours?” Bernstein asks in We Coast, a moody study in resonance versus rhythm. She closes the album with its one moment of levity, Whirling Statue, which opens with what sounds like a talkbox.

Contemplating a Burnt-Out Shell of a World

What’s more desolate than an increasingly empty world slowly burning to a crisp? That’s the implication of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert, the follow-up to his vast, turbulent super-epic symphonic work Become Ocean. As you would expect, where that piece is awash in churning rhythms and a titanic, byzantine interweave of voices, Become Desert is more airy and expansive. The world after global warming takes its toll is one lonely place!

The Seattle Symphony‘s world premiere recording of the work, with Ludovic Morlot on the podium, is streaming at Spotify. Beyond a distant wariness and a deceptively soothing calm, this isn’t horrific music: the composer gives us a wide canvas to contemplate and fill in the grisly details ourselves.

It’s Adams’ most ambient, spectral work to date. Bells slowly rise over a whisper of winds and strings, an arid breeze across the sands. Slowly, a rhythm emerges, akin to the clock chimes that introduce Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, at a tenth the speed. Keening overtones filter through the expanse of sound, the bells offering a subtle elegy amid the swells, fades and relentless glare. Brass and muted timpani thunder offer ghostly evidence that there was once activity here – or is that simply a thunderstorm, a wake-up call in the here and now? The orchestra finally begin a long advance in waves, but there’s no water in them. Musical cautionary tales don’t get more allusive, yet more vivid, than this. After the coronavirus scare is over, we’d better get busy.

Mesmerizing Contrabass Clarinet Atmospherics From John McCowen

One of the most subtly magical atmospheric albums released in recent months is John McCowen’s Solo Contra album, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a trio of solo compositions for contrabass clarinet. McCowen is a protege of Roscoe Mitchell and has a background in punk jazz; this album brings to mind the former if not the latter. Lesley Flanigan’s experiments with speakers and audio feedback are another strong point of comparison. McCowen’s formula seems simple but is actually very technically daunting: to employ this relatively rare, low-pitched instrument to produce surrealistically oscillating, keening high textures via tireless circular breathing.

Gritty, simmering ambience rises out of a mist as the first track, Fur Korv gets underway. Valves pop delicately in the room’s tantalizing natural reverb; high harmonics build slowly and disappear in a second.

It’s amazing how many of those harmonics McCowen is able to simultaneously tease out of the horn in the second number, Chopper HD, a study in burred high frequencies. Much as the sonics often evoke a circular saw, or a loose fanwheel that could use some grease, it doesn’t appear that McCowen uses any electronic effects to make his job easier.

McCowen’s magnum opus here is the practically seventeen-minute suite Berths 1-3. Digeridoo-like spirals contrast with barely audible, breathy white noise; as the pitches grow higher and more acidically scratchy, it’s a clinic in rattle and hum, a treble counterpart to the diesel-beyond-the-bulkhead ambience of Gebhard Ullmann’s BassX3 project. This isn’t music that will hit you over the head, but you can get completely lost in it.

A Brooding, Resonant Subterranean Soundscape for Halloween Month

Today’s installment for Halloween month is Philip Blackburn’s album Music of Shadows – streaming at Spotify – which was written to be played in the St. Paul, Minnesota sewer system. Innova Records put out this bleak, tectonically and ineluctably shifting triptych in 2014, and it may be the high point of the composer’s career so far.

Blackburn is sort of the shadow image of Brian Eno – his enveloping, often darkly majestic electroacoustic soundscapes tend to whoosh and resonate in the lows, sometimes with provocative samples. His recent works have addressed the struggles of Vietnamese refugees and have lampooned right-wing bigotry. This one is more of a relentless mood piece. Even the mathrock-y bubbles as the second movement opens give way to a coldly echoing, oscillating resonance.

About five minutes into the icy lead-pipe ambience of the opening movement, there are doors slamming and children playing, but the effect evokes a prison vastly more than it does a playground. And the disembodied choir fading in and out eventually blend with the rest of the ghosts.

And for anyone living in an urban area, the album has value to match its gloomy, entrancing artistic merits. Your neighbors might bang on the ceiling if you crank a loud rock record in the middle of the night to drown out the crackhead or the creeps down the hall, but if you blast this, nobody can really complain – and if you’re tired enough, it will eventually lull you back to sleep.  After all, nobody can tell you that you can’t vacuum your floor at four in the morning, can they? That movie you were just blasting? What movie, wink wink! Any nightmares you might have are incidental. Or are they?

A Mesmerizing, Lushly Enveloping, Rare Maryanne Amacher Work Rescued From the Archives

Last night at the Kitchen nonprofit music advocates Blank Forms staged the first performance of Maryanne Amacher’s Adjacencies since a Carnegie Hall concert in 1966. A mesmerized, sold-out audience was there to witness a major moment in New York music history, performed by Yarn/Wire percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg.

The music shifted slowly and tectonically, from sepulchral flickers, to vast washes of sound punctuated by playful rhythmic accents, occasionally rising to an epically enveloping intensity that bordered on sheer horror and then fell away. The premise of the suite – the only surviving graphic score from Adjoins, a series the composer wrote while still in her twenties – is to subtly shift the sonic focus via quadrophonic speakers, mixed live with a meticulous, artful subtlety by Daniel Neumann and Woody Sullender.

The influence of Stockhausen – an early advocate for Amacher – and Edgar Varese (in a less wilfully assaultive moment, maybe) were apparent, but ultimately this piece is its own animal. Amacher’s score separates the passages into five specific tonal ranges, leaving the rest up to the performers. Greenberg was more or less in charge of bowing, Antonio with hitting, although they switched roles, at one point with considerable wry humor.

Both players stood amid a practically identical set of instruments: cymbals, twin snare drums, marimbas, gongs, circular bell tubes, propane canisters (presumably empty) and a big oil drum on its side. Coy oscillations contrasted with slowly rising, ominous low-register ambience. A pair of autoharps (the original score calls for concert models) were bowed, plucked and hammered in varying degrees for resonance rather than distinct melodies.

Familiar images – intentional or not – which came to mind included busy city traffic, distant conversations amid a bustling crowd, jet and electric engines, and a hailstorm or two. The most striking, creepiest moment came when Greenberg bowed the lowest tube on his marimba, channeling a murky discontent from the great beyond. A refrain eventually appeared, but from a different vantage point, at about the two o’clock mark if you consider centerstage to be high noon.

On one hand, it was tempting to the extreme to just sit back, eyes closed, and get lost in the music. On the other, the constantly shifting action onstage was also a lot of fun to watch – the suspense never let up, finally coming full circle with a whispery unease. The performance repeats tonight, Sept 30 at 8; cover is $20. In a stroke of fate, this two-night stand equals the total number of times the piece was previously performed.

The next event at the Kitchen after this is on Oct 3 at 7 PM with rare footage of golden-age CBGB bands the Talking Heads, Heartbreakers, Tuff Darts and others filmed there by the Metropolis Video collective over forty years ago. Admission is free: get there early and expect a long line.

A Rare New York Appearance by Haunting Norwegian Soundscaper Deathprod

For more than twenty-five years, Helge Sten a.k.a. Deathprod has been creating hauntingly provocative sounds that are impossible to turn away from. Elements of minmalism, Eno-esque soundscapes, spectral, microtonal and film music all factor into what he does, but he transcends genre. Three of his European cult favorite albums – Treetop Drive, Imaginary Songs from Tristan da Cunha, and Morals and Dogma are being reissued by Smalltown Supersound and are all scheduled to be streaming at Bandcamp (follow the preceding three links or bookmark this page) He’s playing a rare New York live show on March 28 at around 9 at Issue Project Room, 22 Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn; cover is $15/$12 stud/srs.

On the triptych that comprises three-quarters of Treetop Drive, originally released in 1994, the instruments are Sten’s “audio virus” and Hans Magnus Ryan’s violin. Steady minor-key chordal washes build a hypnotic backdrop, finally infiltrated by flitting, sepulchral shivers. A ghostly choir of sorts joins as the waves rise, and almost as if on cue, a wintry seaside tableau emerges. The second part, an assaultive industrial fugue, has a similarly insistent, pulsing quality. The spoken-word sample in the unexpectedly catchy, allusively motorik conclusion addresses a death fixation in late 20th century society that extends even to young children: creepy, at the very least. The final cut, Towboat, juxtaposes a calm minor arpeggio against waves of chaotic industrial noise

On 2004’s Morals and Dogma, Ryan also plays harmonium on one track, joined by Ole Henrik Moe on violin. The approach is more enveloping and layered: distant echoes of breaking waves, thunder, perhaps bombs and heavy artillery, are alluded to but never come into clear focus, raising the suspense and menace throughout the opening track, Trom. The almost nineteen-minute Dead People’s Things filters shivery flickers of violin, and then what could be a theremin, throughout a muted, downcast quasi-choral dirge. Orgone Donor, awash in a haze of shifts between major and minor, reaches for serenity – but Sten won’t allow anything so pat as a calm resolution. The final, enigmatically and ominously nebulous piece, Cloudchamber, is aptly titled. Heard at low volume, it could be soothing; the louder it gets, the more menacing it becomes. Perhaps Sten is telling us that just like life, death is what you make of it.

Challenging and Intriguing Projects From Irrepressible Cellist Valerie Kuehne

Cellist Valerie Kuehne has made a name for herself by constantly touring and gigging at the outer fringes of improvised and experimental music. She may not be throwing wrenches into the system, but she’s always throwing something. She can spin a gorgeously lyrical phrase one second and then shatter her bow with a murderous swipe of low-register murk the next. Her music can be assaultive, even tortured, but also wickedly satirical and unselfconsciously playful, like a cat reveling in batting a breadbag twisty around the floor. Her sensibility is often inchoate and messy, fueled by anger and alienation, but also a sobering awareness that evades an awful lot of people who call themselves artists. She has a show coming up on April 4 at 7:30 PM at Dixon Place Theatre at 161 Chrystie St. north of Delancey with her uneasy neoromantic project Naked Roots Conducive with violinist Natalia Steinbach, and probably a small army of special guests, which is typical of bills Kuehne plays on. This happens to be the release show for her new “performance opera” Sacred521, which ostensibly “explores the beauty and terror of personal disclosure and visceral catharsis in individual experience.” Advance tix are $12.

Kuehne’s latest release is her Suite for Solo Cello, a starkly acerbic, multitracked five-part work available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp. Played live, it would require at least a cello trio. It’s a good capsulization of what Kuehne is all about, in introspective mode, drawing on minimalism and spectral music as much as the avant garde, with abundant use of microtones and extended technique.

It rises out of a sideswiping tone poem of sorts to several crescendos which hint, almost agonizingly, at a resolution. But that never arrives. Slithery high harmonics introduce brooding, rain-drenched atmospherics; a staggering, sawing march hits an axe-murderer stomp and quickly subsides.

From an uneasily hazy atmosphere, she returns to a march, but with a slow, aching quality. From there Kuehne lets a broodingly suspenseful ambience linger and then abruptly flips the script, taking an eerily dissociative pizzicato stroll. And then it’s over, unless you count the drolly layered spoken-word passage at the end.

Kuehne is also on the shortlist of the world’s most entertaining and insightful music writers. Her album-a-day project awhile back is inspiring, to say the least, a challenge to anybody who’s ever spent the early morning hours in the dim light of a laptop trying to make sense of what they just heard.