Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Nordic Night At National Sawdust

Nordic Affect performing Point of Departure at National Sawdust

It was unseasonably frigid last Wednesday when I headed to Williamsburg for my first visit to National Sawdust. I've had my eye on this venue when it was just a rumor and I was looking for a new job in development. While I never saw the right job for me on their listings, I was excited when they opened and have been intrigued ever since by the variety and creativity of the offerings I heard about in emails and on Facebook. I despaired as events featuring Talea Ensemble and Helga Davis - two of my favorites - went by with me unable to fit them on my calendar. But then all things converged and I was able to attend when they hosted Nordic Affect's New York City Debut. 

This avant garde chamber ensemble created one of the albums of the year with Raindamage and perhaps they also brought the chill in the air from their native Iceland. But there was a warm welcome at the unassuming door that admitted my wife and I to National Sawdust. The chic black interior was made up of interesting angles with the ticket desk on the right and a bar at the end calling you towards the door of the performance space. There is also a separate sit-down bar with a window on to North 6th Street that looks like a great place to get a drink whether music is on the agenda or not. 

We continued on into the room itself and were stunned to discover one of the most beautiful interiors in the city. It's a work of art with obliquely-angled seemingly symbolic panels covering the walls and ceiling surrounding the high stage. We sat at one of the little round tables, joining someone who was there solo. It would have been a little tight - but do-able - had a fourth person joined us. The menu promised creative cocktails and upscale bar food, which would have been even more intriguing if we weren't stuffed from dinner at Sweet Chick. I'll keep this option in mind for next time - which I hope will be soon!
National Sawdust's stunning interior
With zero fanfare, the four women of Nordic Affect came on stage and performed Clockworking, the title track from their 2015 album, accompanied by eerie footage from a 1966 film called Afro-American Work Songs in a Texas Prison. It was riveting to watch the blown-out black and white forms of the workers moving in rhythm to Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir's music. The performance was completely precise but not uptight, with a relaxed joy in making music immediately evident. 

The sound at National Sawdust is so superb that I hardly gave it a thought, the clear acoustic allowing nothing to get between me and the music. This was especially commendable in the pieces that included electronics, like the title track to Raindamage, which they performed later in the evening. But first we had a new work by Hildur Guōnadóttir, Point of Departure, which asks each performer to sing long notes along with their instrument. It's a similar approach that Guōnadóttir took on 2 Circles, a work for violin solo that Nordic Affect's Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir recorded on Clockworking. The results are both meditative and mysterious, with a hint of Medieval plainchant, and a keen observer couldn't help but notice the silent interactions between the players that allowed them to pull it off perfectly. 

Next was Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's Shades of Silence, which also appeared on Clockworking. Before starting it there was a brief pause while Gudrún Óskarsdóttir prepared her harpsichord, placing various items on the strings inside. She also played the sides of the instrument, creating woody thumps, a picked out a sparkling melody from time to time. The performance made the piece seem more approachable somehow, maybe because you could observe how the various parts fit together. 

This was also true of Raindamage and Þýð, which were both performed as a trio by Stefánsdóttir along with Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir (viola) and Hanna Loftsdóttir (cello). Stefánsdóttir explained that the latter piece, composed by Úlfur Hansson, was built up out of so many layers in the studio that there would be no way to replicate it in concert without a little help - from the audience. So she divided the room into thirds and asked us to hum along with the instrument in our section. She also asked us to stand and reminded us to breathe. I don't think I was on key the entire time but when I crossed into harmony with her violin there was a sensation of belonging and inclusion. Whether being asked to help or not, the audience is part of every concert. It was also a good reminder at how much concentration it can take to play this demanding music, even as they performed it with apparent ease. 

The final work included the full quartet and another projection. Called Loom and composed by Sigfúsdóttir with visuals by Dodda Maggy, this new piece had only been performed once before, earlier in Nordic Affect's American tour. The film consists of hypnotic circular patterns, which were echoed in the music, creating a perfect bookend for the concert. It was easy to become hypnotized there in the dark as the music drew you further into the colorful animations. 

While Loom was conceived to include the film I think the music will stand on its own should Nordic Affect decide to include it on their next album, which is sure to be spectacularly fascinating either way. As I've written over their years, for a tiny country, Iceland is producing a high volume of excellent music. Rather than finding this baffling, I simply listen in wonder. I recommend you try it and see if you find yourself doing the same. 

You may also enjoy:
Collapsing Into Nordic Affect's Raindamage
Skylark's Liminal Journey
Cello For All, Part 2: Michael Nicolas
Best Of 15: Classical & Composed

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wordless Music Plays Barry Lyndon

 
For years, I've been getting intriguing emails from Wordless Music detailing their different projects, which always include a few concerts where they accompany a film screening with a live performance of the soundtrack. This has become a popular sideline for the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras as well, creating a new (read: younger) audience for some graying institutions. 

I was there back in 1981 when Abel Gance's monumental silent film Napoleon was restored and shown at Radio City Music Hall with a live score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. It was shattering and intense experience, and set a very high bar for this sort of thing. More recently, when we went to see Frankenstein at the United Palace Theater with an improvised soundtrack played by guitarist Gary Lucas, an event that was suboptimal in nearly every way, making me a little gun shy. Partly for that reason, while I'm often attracted to Wordless Music's concepts they tend to hover just below the line where interest becomes commitment. 

But when they announced Barry Lyndon with a live score, there was no question we would have to go. I was lucky enough to see Stanley Kubrick's masterful period piece when it opened (yes, again at Radio City Music Hall) and I was immediately enraptured. Since I was only 10 or 11, there were certainly nuances I missed, but I was enthralled by Kubrick's evocation of a slightly alien past filled with all-too-human characters. Years later, I showed it to my wife and her reaction was identical. We also became obsessed with the music, some of which I tracked down piecemeal, as the Oscar-winning soundtrack was out of print at the dawn of the CD era (it is once again, but you can listen on YouTube or buy a used copy). I finally found it on vinyl and we were able to enjoy all the music as it was assembled by Leonard Rosenman for the film. It became a soundtrack to our own lives for a while.

As this was our first Wordless Music experience, we were confronted by sticker shock: they charge top dollar ($70 - $100) for tickets. Nevertheless, we took the plunge and reserved seats. Saturday night found us driving out to Flatbush where the beautifully restored King's Theater is located. We were coming from a family gathering on Long Island, which is why we used our car for what was literally a trip down memory lane. We found Flatbush to be the same riotous neighborhood it was when we lived there over 20 years ago, still pulsing to the beat of blaring dancehall reggae and busy with street vendors, and we felt at home even though it had been a long time. 

The municipal parking lot described in the email from Wordless Music was either closed or beyond my ken, but we lucked into a space on the street. While circling we had noticed an IHOP, which suited our mood more than the jerk chicken or Dominican cuisine that can be found on every corner. The cavernous and seemingly brand new restaurant was nearly empty so service was fast and breakfast for dinner was as delicious as ever. 

As instructed, we got to the King's Theater nearly an hour early. There was a line down the block - but that was for ticket pickup and I had ours on my iPhone so we went right in (it's like EZ Pass: why doesn't everyone do it?). The website having prepared us for a security checkpoint of nearly airport-level stringency, we emptied our pockets and walked through the scanner before taking in the stunning scale and detail of the restored theater. 


There was an excited hum in the lobby as people availed themselves of the many bars scattered around, which sold not only top-shelf liquor but candy and high-end snacks, including wrap sandwiches that would have been handy if we hadn't had time for dinner. We made our way to our seats, assisted by the helpful ushers, and sat down. The theater space was exactly what the lobby promised, with whimsical caryatids and elaborate gilded decor. 


The little program book was well printed and designed, with gorgeous stills from the movie and some background information. I noted many familiar names in the orchestra and realized that Wordless was working with some of the best musicians in the city. I read the whole thing cover to cover while my wife Googled historical information on the theater, which originally opened in 1929. Before we knew it, it was 8:30 and the film hadn't started yet. The natives were getting restless, clapping in their seats, until there was an announcement around 8:45 that went something like this: "Welcome to the historic King's Theater. Due to unprecedented demand at the box office, we have to delay the start of our show as everyone gets to their seats. Please be patient." I will be more respectful of your time and say no more - except to call "bullshit" and note that the movie started a over an hour late, which is a little cruel considering it's three and a half hours long. 

As soon as Ryan McAdams, the conductor, raised his baton, I blew any annoyance away and let myself luxuriate in Kubrick's exquisite vision of Thackeray's novel. Hearing the opening chords of Handel's Saraband helped, of course, as did seeing the spectacular digital projection of the remastered film. Seeing Barry Lyndon this far removed from when it was made brought home the remarkable restraint practiced by Kubrick and his production designer Ken Adam, which kept them from making a movie that just looked like the 1970's. The candle-lit cinematography by John Alcott is second-to-none and adds intimacy to even the grandest interior shots. Ulla-Britt Soderlund and Milena Canonero, the costumers, are also to be commended for not going all Yves St. Laurent on the 18th century. They got a hearty round of applause at the end but I was the only person who clapped for Ken Adam - like any James Bond fan, I know that he was one of the best ever at his craft. Alcott, Adam, Soderlund and Canonero all won Oscars for their incredible work.

The performance of the music was similarly flawless and perfectly cued to the projection (the dialogue, however, was only 99.5% in sync - another minor quibble). While Rosenman's work on the soundtrack was remarkable, I would venture to say that 40 years of evolution in the performance style of 18th century music was only to the benefit of Kubrick's conception, with a dryer, less ornamental approach enhancing Thackeray's gimlet-eyed but compassionate view of Redmond Barry's triumphs and travails. The piano trio (Timo Andres, Pauline Kim Harris, and Clarice Jensen) deserves special mention - I would love to hear them perform all of Schubert's Opus 100. The Irish folk musicians jumped into the traditional music, originally played by The Chieftains, fearlessly and with both feet, and tenor Nils Neubert's vocal turn in Paisello's Cavatina was a small wonder. 

The event further proved that Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest films of all time. It is the platonic ideal for how to adapt a novel with a strong narrative voice, an Olympus that is seldom scaled and never summited, and, even with the slight mishaps, Wordless Music did it proud service. I really can't say enough good things about it - it must be seen to be believed, preferably on a big screen. So, I will gladly remain on Wordless Music's mailing list and hope that next time the whole experience is as finely calibrated as the magnificent musical performance. 


"It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
-William Makepeace Thackeray

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Kenyon Hopkins At 101: Putting Sound To Sight

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Boogarins Live: Parallel Play


I like to listen to music while skiing (big surprise, right?) and have found that live recordings add a wonderful extra energy as I carve my way down the slope. So the other day I was listening to Led Zeppelin play Orlando in 1971 and after a pummeling opening set they transitioned to an acoustic interlude. The taper began fumbling with the mics, probably in a effort to better capture the suddenly delicate sounds coming from the group.

Instead of being annoyed at the breaking of Zep's magical spell, I found myself connecting directly to the bootlegger's excitement and the powerful compulsion to record rock concerts that arose in the late 60's. While some tapers might have been driven by commercial concerns, I believe more of them were inspired by the idea that what happens here tonight might never happen again. 

The industry eventually recognized what was going on (and the loss of potential income) and ramped up the production of live albums, a genre which had its heyday in the great lives and double-lives of the 70's (sample an idiosyncratic selection here). There's probably a lot more that could be said about the decline of the live album since those hairy days, which is one reason I'm usually listening to bootlegs while I ski. However, one new recording has been in regular rotation since it was released in February, and it's not hard to imagine the Led Zep taper with his finger on "Record" here as well. 

I speak of Desvio Onirico by Brazilian psych band Boogarins, which may just be the first great live album of the millennium. Consisting of four long tracks recorded in 2016, each in a different location, this "dreamlike detour" demonstrates a huge leap in their approach since the first time I saw them, when, fantastic as they were, they often pushed the needle on volume and power rather than finesse. 

Infinu (Infuse), from their 2013 debut album As Plantas Que Curamopens the album with some subtly altered stage banter. Then they play the song fairly straight for about three minutes, dishing out the splashy call and response riff with aplomb, before one of them takes off on a questing guitar solo that seems to draw from inexhaustible resources of bent notes and flamethrower tonalities. At a climactic moment the song breaks down to the bass player, the crowd cheers, and it appears it might be ending. But the bass gains momentum and gradually pulls everyone back into a wild exploration, each occupying their own space on an interconnected landscape. 

Just when it seems to have nowhere else to go, it comes back to the bass, which keeps riffing as the band says their farewells: "We are Boogarins from Brazil, we hope to be back soon." As bright chords introduce a new motif for an extended coda, it dawns on the listener that the album has started with an ending, perhaps even an encore. No wonder they were in such a zone - they'd likely been playing for at least an hour already! Don't apologize for cheering along.

Tempo, originally on Manual, their second album, and recorded at Rock In Rio Lisboa, begins with an overture of spacious chords and distortion introducing a stop-and-start verse that seems full of questions. The chorus, a repeated muscular phrase played by both guitars, ramps up the tension but the real fireworks begin after the second verse, which includes the sound of a passing jet plane. Things begin to fragment, one guitar producing oscillating feedback and the other picking out notes, while the drums roll and tumble along. The chorus phrase returns, and the tempo starts to heat up. Things get loud and chaotic before a delicate version of the main riff resurfaces and they sing another verse. They play out the song by burning through multiple accelerating iterations of the chorus before coming to a dead stop - done. 

Auchma is also from Manual and "it goes long and crazy live," as they admitted on Facebook. Indeed - most of the eight minutes in this version is taken up by remarkable parallel play, with both guitarists seemingly engaged in their own pursuits but somehow still remaining in the same universe. Your ears can play a game of deciding which is the lead instrument by switching back and forth. And then a synth or maybe just an oscillator comes in like a shortwave radio, all squiggles and bleeps, and Auchma hits a new stride. If this is long and crazy, gimme more. 

The final song is an improvisation named after Manchacha Roadhouse, the club in Austin where they recorded it. Driven by a galloping shuffle on the drums, the song continues the idea of parallel play, with the two guitars and a fat electronic tone each following their own muse. About halfway through, it gets super quiet even as the tempo increases, becoming a propulsive meditation that eventually breaks apart, burning up on reentry. Instead of applauding, I can imagine the audience breathing deeply as one and nodding in the direction of their pilots before exiting into the Texan night. 

It's anybody's guess where Boogarins goes from here but I feel sure their next album will be a doozy. Watch them infuse an Austin studio with magic and and keep your eyes out for a live date near you. 

P.S. Boogarins aren't the only ones on the live album tip in 2017. Sleater Kinney fans rejoiced at the release of Live in Paris and Hiss Golden Messenger just came out with Parker's Picks Vol. 1: Live at The Parish, Austin, TX 10​/​18​/​2016, an excellent recording from their recent tour. And if you want to relive a recent concert, you may just find it at NYC Taper