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Thrills, Gravitas and Cinematic Color with the Nakshatra Quartet at the Drive East Festival

Considering how much great live music there is in New York, a festival has to be pretty special to be worth going to four out of five nights during the work week. But this year’s edition of the Drive East Festival has been that good. And it’s been as diverse as always. So far this week’s concerts have featured laments, ragas both epic and fleeting, a harrowing Metoo-themed dance piece set to a live score, and blissfully peaceful improvisation. Last night’s performance by violinists Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu’s Nakshatra Quartet was the most viscerally thrilling and solo-centric of all of them up to this point. But it was also about dynamics, and pushing the envelope, and keeping a clear eye on the grim realities of this year’s political environment…and what we can do about it.

Ramamurthy and Basu would probably laugh if someone called them New York’s #1 power couple in Indian music, but it’s impossible to think of another family with equally formidable chops. When they perform as a duo, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what unless you’re watching. In this ensemble – which also included Jake Charkey on cello and Dan Kurfirst on percussion – their individuality was much more defined, although the two have a near-telepathic rapport.

Basu came to carnatic music from a classical background, and plays with her violin on her shoulder. In this context, she revealed a lighter, more delicate tone than her husband, who’s been immersed in carnatic music since his student days but also excels at jazz improvisation. Where her approach had more a silken legato, Ramamurthy dug in hard with his glissandos and jaunty ornamentation, seated crosslegged, the head of his axe balanced on the stage. Both husband and wife delivered spine-tingling solos.

They opened with the colorful, cinematic pastorale, Tempest. The intensity went through the roof when Charkey joined the tense intertwine between the violins, adding an ominous drone on the G string. From there they negotiated a maze of increasingly agitated echo effects and circular phrases, up to a stormy peak and then an uneasy clearing, coming full circle at the end,

The rest of the set combined edgy jazz flair with Indian majesty and gravitas. Basu introduced the mini-epic Migration as a parable of the increasing terror and obstacles facing refugees and immigrants since the fateful 2016 Presidential election – an insight underscored by her participation in the Borderless Lullabies benefit project for refugee children incarcerated at the US-Mexico border. The interplay was dancingly optimistic to begin with but then climbed to stormy, increasingly syncopated territory.

Nocturne, a dramatic and incisively haunting tableau, had Middle Eastern tinges, ominously shivery chromatic cascades from Basu and slashing microtones from Ramamurthy, in solos that were tantalizingly short. He introduced the night’s one cover, Kalamabike, by 18th century composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, as being very dear to his heart, which was understandable: it’s a gorgeous coda to one of the composer’s many suites, its stark, plaintively unwinding variations anchored by an elegant, broodingly serpentine bassline from Charkey.

You might not expect a drummer to be using a djembe, cajon, daf frame drum and cymbal at a show like this, but this isn’t your typical Indian band, and Kurfirst provided understated color and texture with each of those implements. Charkey also got a couple of moments to pitch in with darkly slithery, microtonally bristling solos. The trio’s closing number echoed the loping, quasi trip-hop groove that many of the other songs followed in their most straightforward moments, in addition to vivid raga riffs from all three of the stringed instruments. Was all this jazz? You could call it that. Indian music? Most definitely. But ultimately, all this defied categorization: it’s unique to the Nakshatra Quartet. You’ll see this concert on the Best Shows of 2019 page here at the end of the year.

This year’s Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 10 at 7:20 PM with a rare US performance by another spectacular, dynamic violinist, Sruti Sarathy at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St.; cover is $20.

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

This Year’s Noguchi Museum Concert Series Winds Up With Enchantingly Hypnotic, Vivid Indian Music

Sunday afternoon at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu coiled and spun and wound their way through an intricate, cinematic, constantly shifting series of themes anchored in thousands of years of Indian classical music. Both violinists have formidable chops to match the eclectic range of their compositions. Without watching closely, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what, their harmonies were so seamless. Supposedly, couples grow to resemble each other, and while there’s no mistaking her for him, their styles are similar. Ramamurthy is probably the more likely of the two to pull an epic crescendo out of thin air, which he did with a slithery cadenza about midway through the show. Basu often infuses her work with a puckish sense of humor, and there were a couple of points at this show where she playfully goosed her husband through a couple of almost ridiculously amusing exchanges of pizzicato,

The two began the show with a raga, immediately introducing the suspense as the sparse phrases of their opening alap slowly came together. Often Basu would ground the music with austerely resonant, viola-like washes, but then the two violins would exchange roles and she’d go soaring while Ramamurthy held down the lows, often with a wary, melismatic edge. Meanwhile, percussionist Rich Stein, who’d first joined the fun with a precise, tabla-like rhythm, went to his cymbals for a lush mist and by the show’s midpoint was getting all sorts of wry snowflake effects out of his shakers and rattles.

All the compositions were based on classic raga themes. A melodic minor number brought a storm theme to life, but this was no ordinary monsoon! The group worked endless permutations on the theme of a boat rocking on the waves, then suddenly there was a sparse after-the-rain idyll. Just when it seemed they’d reached a calm, the storm came back…and it wasn’t going to leave until everybody was drenched! Of all the trick endings, false starts and stops, this was the least expected one of the afternoon, long with an even more invigorating, glissandoing detour toward free jazz before Ramamurthy steered it back toward shore.

The trio closed with Migration, a new composition that seemed to portray a very complicated flock of birds making their way to a new destination, scattered with tense, fluttery clusters, calmly sailing interludes and finally a long, hypnotic percussion interlude. Ramamurthy and Basu’s next show is on Oct 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga extravaganza; $30 tix are available for three-hour time slots for those who aren’t planning on making the museum their hotel for the entire night.

This was the final concert in the annual senes here in the museum’s back garden booked by the Bang on a Can organization. For a Sunday when the trains were completely FUBAR, there was a surprisingly good crowd, the audience squeezing themselves onto a few wooden benches, others seated on the garden’s rough gravel on bamboo mats supplied by the museum staff.

The museum itself, just down the block from the Socrates Sculpture Garden, is also worth a trip whether or not there’s music. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s a comfortable walk from the Broadway N train station. Isamu Noguchi was an interesting character: his stone and metal sculptures blend cubism, Eastern Island iconography and desert mesas. He seems to have been caught between several worlds. After Pearl Harbor, he interned himself in an Arizona concentration camp for his fellow Japanese-Americans, hoping to provide some art therapy, but quickly grew disillusioned…and then had a hard time getting released. The current exhibit there documents those struggles during an especially ugly moment in American history.