New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: wu man

The Silkroad Ensemble Release a Haunting, Surreal New Osvaldo Golijov Epic

Over the past practically three decades, the Silkroad Ensemble have been the world’s great champions of a blend of music from south Asia, through the Arabic-speaking world and the west. Their latest album, Falling Out of Time – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises a single, lavish, thirteen-part tone poem by contemporary classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, which hauntingly dovetails with the group’s esthetic. It may be the most stunningly accessible orchestral work the composer has ever written. It’s certainly the most eclectic, drawing on such diverse idioms as Indian music, classical Chinese theatre, jazz balladry and sounds of the Middle East.

This is a frequently operatically-tinged work, tracing a surreal, grim narrative surrounding the death of a child. Mythical creatures and archetypes are involved. The introduction, Heart Murmur rises from a brooding, skeletal Arabic-tinged taqsim to a darkly catchy, circling ghazal-like melody over a dancing, jazz-inflected pulse and the achingly intertwining voices of singers Biella da Costa and Nora Fischer.

Night Messengers is a stark, increasingly imploring nocturnal tableau, the womens’ voices wary and enigmatic over an all-star string quartet comprising half of Brooklyn Rider – violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords – with violinist Mazz Swift, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.

That sudden, stratospherically high harmony in the enigmatic Come Chaos is a real shock to the system: is that a voice, Wu Tong’s sheng, or a theremin? No spoilers!

Uneasy, fragmentary flickers from the strings followed by Wu Man’s pipa join to introduce the simply titled Step, rising to a harrowing intensity. The Lynchian dub interlude afterward comes as another real shock.

Shane Shanahan’s tabla and the singers’ acidic harmonies take over the hypnotic ambience as In Procession, a portrait of mass bereavement, gets underway, Kayhan Kalhor’s muted, desolate kamancheh solo at the center amid the string quartet. Troubled atmospherics waft and eventually permeate Walking, the suite’s drifting, central elegy, lowlit with echoey kamancheh, Dan Brantigan’s desolate trumpet and Shawn Conley’s spare jazz-inflected bass

An ambient lament featuring spiky pipa in contrast to Jeremy Flower’s synth foreshadows Fly, which with its aching ambience and jazz allusions mirrors the centerpiece. Go Now, the suite’s most immersive, restlessly resonant track, features a long, plaintive kamancheh intro, a similarly aching, vivid duet with the violin. Da Costa reaches for the rafters with the pipa trailing off morosely at the end.

Akeya (Where Are You) is a dissociative mashup of orchestral 1950s Miles Davis, Etta James moan and kabuki theatre, maybe. The ensemble hint at rebirth and redemption in the closing tableau, Breathe. Is the nameless dead boy at the center of the story a metaphor for the hope and joy that was stolen from us in 2020? What a piece of music for our time!

A Rare, Explosive New York Performance of Ancient Chinese Music and Puppetry

The manic energy of Chinese New Year in New York can’t compare with Saturday night’s performance by the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band with pipa virtuoso Wu Man at the Ethical Culture Society. Staged by the World Music Institute, the show featured not only hammering medieval battle songs to rival any Viking pageantry, but also boisterous, droll shadow puppetry. Wu Man wryly characterized it as “old Chinese rock and roll.”

As chronicled in the 2012 documentary film Discovering a Musical Heartland: Wu Man’s Return to China, the lute virtuoso has been on a crusade to preserve rapidly vanishing folk styles across her vast home turf. As you would imagine, Chinese sounds are every bit as diverse as American music. This concert was a rare opportunity to experience feral, centuries-old village traditions from a dynastic family band which has been active since the 1700s, updated with some spine-tingling 21st century improvisation. Wu Man is the first woman to ever play with this crew, which until recently had been strictly a family enterprise, run by the Zhang clan of farmers from a mountain village in Shaanxi Province.

One of their instruments was a robust handmade wooden bench that percussionist Dang Anhua had brought from home. His wife had sewed a pretty pink carrying case which typically draws mystified looks from airport checkin personnel across the globe, Wu Man explained. That bench absorbed several mighty whacks to cap off a battlefield scenario, and gave the floor of the stage several mighty thumps as well.

Wu Man opened the show with a couple of solo pipa pieces, a traditional number followed by an original, shifting sometimes elegantly and sometimes suddenly from lilting pastoral passages to fiery volleys of tremolo-picking and the occasional sparkling glissando.

A rustic, sawing quartet of erhu fiddles – one a low-register zhunghu model, akin to a Chinese cello – kicked off the first group piece, frontman and moon lute player Zhang Ximin leading the ensemble with his hearty, theatrical vocals. Many of the group numbers commemorated battles from the first century A.D. Others retold ancient fables, from a creation myth to a droll shadow puppet piece about a group of villagers fending off a voracious lion.

Wu Man is an irrepressible extrovert, a generous and insightful ambassador for traditional Chinese music and is also very funny, whether enumerating the difference in Chinese dialects, recounting the group’s adventures on the road or trading peek-a-boo riffs with various group members. Zhang Shinin played several percussion instruments including a small gong, and served as puppeteer as well. Zhang Qansi, Zhang Xinmin and Dang Guangdi played erhu, with Yuan Yuti on zhunghu, and Liu Xicang on banhu, a long trumpet.

The concert followed a dynamic path, with intricate pipa pastorales interspersed among the jubilant, catchy, pentatonoic anthems. Shivery fiddling, elephantine snorts from the trumpet and raucous percussion rose and fell, Wu Man a gentle but forceful, pointillistic presence with her rippling strings.

The World Music Institute’s next show is a  Middle Eastern-flavored triplebill of brilliant Middle Eastern and North African women performers at the Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Saturday night, March 24 at 7:30 PM. Fiery Tunisian art-rocker Emel Mathlouthi, slinky, oud-fueled Middle Eastern/Nile Delta dance orchestra Alsarah & the Nubatones and Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj share the bill: tix are expensive, $35, but worth it.

An Astonishingly Eclectic, Global Album and an Auspicious Laurie Anderson Collaboration at BAM from the Kronos Quartet

The original indie classical ensemble, the Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – are teaming up with Laurie Anderson for what promises to be one of the year’s best, and potentially one of the decade’s most auspicious runs at BAM next week. They’lll be performing their collaboration, Landfall, which explores Anderson’s experiences during Hurricane Sandy here in New York a couple of years ago. The concerts run from Sept 23 to Sept 27 at 7:30 PM. $20 balcony seats are still available as of today. You’ve been given the heads-up – this could be major.

The Kronos Quartet’s latest album, A Thousand Thoughts – streaming at Spotify – is also pretty major. It’s basically a survey of string music from around the globe, accent on intense and substantial. It’s also an unusually successful take on a format that’s often overrated and underwhelming: pairing a famous group with a bunch of equally famous special guests. But the Quartet has always been a mutable unit, as these fifteen tracks – recorded across the years, with every Kronos Quartet lineup – prove over and over again. They literally can play anything, yet always manage to put their own individualistic, out-of-the-box stamp on it. Celtic traditional music reinvented as ambient soundscape? Check. The Blind Willie Johnson delta blues tune Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground remade as Vietnamese art-song, with eerily quavering dan bao from Van-Anh Vanessa Vo? Doublecheck.

Maybe what’s most enjoyable here is that virtually all of these performance are acoustic. To be completely fair, when the Kronos Quartet have employed electronics, those effects aren’t usually gratuitous: the group tends to use them for extra atmospheric bulk and heft when a piece calls for it. But these performances are intimate, with an immediacy and vivid chemistry among the ensemble and with the guests. The Quartet teams up with Syrian star Omar Souleyman for a Bollywood-ish jam with biting accents and swirling microtones over a steady, hypnotic beat. Vo returns to join her countryman Kim Sinh for another alternately spiky and swooping Vietnamese number. A suspensefully crescendoing, rather epic Ethiopian theme by Ethiopiques sax legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya is one of the album’s highlights.

A far more stark, haunting highlight is Sim Sholom, by klezmer legend Alter Yechiel Karniol. A long, dynamically rich, slowly unwinding take of a Turkish classical theme by early 20th century composer Tanburi Cemil Bey might be the best track of them all. Or it could be the spare, haunting Greek gangster blues tune Smyrneiko Minore. Or for that matter, a rare. achingly beautiful excerpt from Astor Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations featuring the great bandoneonist/composer himself.

There’s also a shapeshiftingly lush Terry Riley piece featuring the vocals of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares; a Homayun Sakhi Afghani rubab tune that straddles the line between Middle Eastern and Indian music; a scampering collaboration with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man on a rousing traditional song; and a little gentle Bollywood and Irish folk at the end. It’s an apt summation of this group’s hall of fame career, one that simply refuses to stop.

Obscure Chinese Music for Mainstream Gypsy and Jam Band Fans

The Uighurs are a nomadic Muslim culture centered primarily in the oasis cities of northwestern China. Throughout much of the Chinese subcontinent, their music carries an air of mystery, similar to how much of Europe has historically perceived gypsy music as being otherworldly or supernatural. Like the gypsies, the Uighurs continue to battle against discrimination and repressive regimes; the diversity of the Uighurs’ music reflects the vastness of the terrain where it originated. Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man was looking to collaborate with Uighur musicians and fortuitously, the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways label came onboard. Methodically, they’ve built a series titled Music of Central Asia, of which Wu Man’s new album Borderlands, credited to her along with “master musicians from the Silk Road,” is the tenth installment. This album presents several different strains: there are echoes of Indian music, the Middle East and even Scandinavia represented in this often plaintive, biting collection played on a series of indigenous lutes and fiddles including the satar, dutar, tanbur and a new, doublenecked invention called the diltar, along with Wu Man’s incisive pipa.

Aside from being just plain fun, the purpose of the album seems to be twofold. For one, it’s a generous attempt on Wu Man’s part to help her fellow musicians – sato-tanburist Abduvali Abdurashidov, dutar player Sirojiddin Juraev, crooner Ma Ersa, multi-lutenist Abdulla Majnun, singer Sanubar Tursun and her younger brother, satar fiddler Hesenjan Tursun, and dap drummer Yasin Yaqup – reach a broader audience. It’s also an attempt to return the music to its roots, considering that much of the repertoire represented here is more commonly played with large-scale orchestration – a relic from the days of Stalinist pomp reaching the Uzbek and Tajik hinterlands – rather than by small groups of folk musicians. But while the instruments here may be acoustic, the energy is electric.

Wu Man did her homework before recording this, adjusting her pipa to mute the bright, pinging tone normally associated with the instrument as it’s been played since the 1950s. There’s a lot of very inspired jamming here, particularly on the opening track, a Tajik theme for “three and a half instruments,” which begins with a skeletal, Arabic-tinged riff and expands its ominously with lots of Indian-style, bent-note ornamentation. The satar solos rustically on a solo improvisation and a stark medley of folk tunes as well as carrying the album’s second track, a pensive wide-open-spaces theme that wouldn’t be out of place in the Huun Huur Tu catalog. There’s a battle theme that sets shuffling, almost furtively scurrying pipa patterns over the strum of the lutes and a Kurdish folk song that sounds like it could be the roots music that Bollywood grew out of. There are a couple of originals by Sanubar Tursun, one an allusively triumphant theme with intervals similar to those of traditional Finnish music, another with hints of southern India.

A Kazakh song gallops along brightly, Wu Man’s agile picking giving it an American bluegrass feel. Ma Ersa, the Chinese folksinger, reaches to the top of his falsetto as the ensemble plinks and dips spaciously behind him one of only two recognizably Chinese melodies here, the other being a lively pastorale sung by Sanubar Tursun. The album ends with an anxious, Arabic-toned love song, a delicate pipa improvisation and an epic Sufi incantation.

Who is the audience for this? It’s not a stretch to think that fans of gypsy music and the more pensive side of gypsy and jamband rock would eat this up. And then of course there are the ever-expanding circles of people who’ve always liked esoteric music, which happily continues to inch closer to and closer to the center. The album comes with an accompanying DVD recorded in Paris which wasn’t part of the promo package sent out to media.